October 31, 2008

Formidable NINE coalition merges goals to educate students

Innovative nanotechnology program led by industry, universities, and national labs struggles towards the light

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —An unusual coalition of 60 industrial, academic, and national lab leaders have harnessed divergent interests with the intent to help students create new inventions, aid national defense, and show a bottom-line profit for industry in the field of nanotechnology.

Promises of funds, equipment, or mentoring — on research topics all participants could support — were the result of a first technical workshop sponsored by Sandia National Laboratories’ National Institute for Nanotechnology Education (NINE), held recently in Albuquerque.

Topics of joint interest included nanoelectronics, nanosynthesis, nanoenabled chemical processing, and nanoscale characterization.

NINE is funded by $7.5 million per year from various sources.

Industry participants included Corning, Exxon Mobil, Goodyear, IBM, Intel, Lockheed Martin, and Monsanto. Universities represented included Harvard University, Harvey Mudd College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Notre Dame University, Rice University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of California at Davis, University of Florida, University of Illinois, University of New Mexico, University of Wisconsin, University of Texas at Austin, as well as New Mexico Highlands University and Purdue University. Also present were representatives from the Semiconductor Research Corporation and the National Science Foundation.

NINE was sparked by warnings in the “Rising above the Gathering Storm” report, sponsored jointly by the National Academies of Science and Engineering, that new action was needed to attract American students to enter science and engineering and equip them as technical innovators to compete successfully on a global scale.

“NINE is a way for us to anticipate and create the future, rather than just reacting to it,” said NINE program manager Regan Stinnett.

The formidable coalition must mesh different goals to be successful.

Universities educate students, win grants, and publish research. National labs develop capabilities of value to their missions. Business’ requirement is, “This will make us money.”

The challenge for NINE administrators is to harness the energies of these divergent participants so that they pull in a single direction.

NINE’s somewhat radical approach offers smart students educational experiences similar, in a way, to the hands-on, apprenticeship model of the 19th century rather than the classroom-structured learning of the 20th century. Students would learn their scientific “trade” by working with university, national lab, and business mentors on large, multidisciplinary projects of value to the nation. Universities would provide pedagogy and basic understanding, national labs provide multidisciplinary technical experience, mentoring, and access to state-of-art-facilities; and businesses would provide market insights so that inventions might eventually become products that change how people live — the introduction of something new, the definition of innovation.

The hope is that original output from these students —following their own research interests with unprecedented leverage from NINE — will make money for industry, help national defense, originate innovative technical discoveries and papers, start new businesses, and receive research grant monies, not necessarily in that order.

To industry reps who wondered why they should work with the Sandia-led NINE program rather than others already in existence, University of New Mexico management professor and MEMS consultant Steve Walsh gestured at workshop participants and said, “Look at who we have here.”

Already involved are students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Texas at Austin, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University of New Mexico, the University of California at Davis, and Purdue and Yale universities.

An immediate goal is NINE’s selection as a DOE Discovery Science and Engineering Innovation Institute under the America Competes Act.

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Neal Singer, (505) 845-7078