Spirit of cooperation ushers in ‘a new era’

People clad in puffy white suits gather around a cluster of blinking and whirring equipment, deciphering its mysterious codes as they jot down notes on their clipboards.

In an adjacent room, a row of giant machines waits silently, the entire room bathed in phosphorescent orange light while cleansing air flows through the perforated ceilings and floors.

Photo by Matt Cashore University of Notre Dame

It may sound like a scene from a futuristic sci-fi flick, but this one’s real.

Anyone passing through Stinson-Remick Hall of Engineering on the University of Notre Dame campus can look through the vast floor-to-ceiling wall of glass inside the main lobby and see a glimpse of the future right in the here and now: the commingling of students, faculty and staff from three key educational institutions, all contributing to the development of a well-trained workforce for emerging nanotechnologies even as they conduct important research.

Here at Stinson-Remick, Notre Dame researchers carry out the work of the Midwest Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery (MIND), one of four primary research centers nationwide developing novel computing devices that ultimately will replace the current transistor technology commonly used in electronic devices, which experts believe will reach their technological limits by 2025.

The Semiconductor Research Corp.’s Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI) selected Notre Dame as the site for MIND almost three years ago because of its research strengths.

“Since its announcement in March 2008, the Midwest Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery has had a huge impact on the community,” says Robert Dunn, MIND’s managing director.

Economic development

Dunn says MIND already has played a significant role in the evolution of South Bend’s high-tech economic development. That role has played out in a number of ways:

• Concurrent with the inception of MIND, the City of South Bend announced $50 million in support for commercializing research discoveries emanating from MIND and other research initiatives at Notre Dame. Innovation Park at Notre Dame is also open to high-tech ventures that are not initiated at the university.
• MIND has provided seed funding to two nanotechnology spinoffs in South Bend. (See related story, “Turning inspiration into reality,” to find out more about their research.)
• MIND has helped organize the Nanotechnology New Ventures Competition being conducted jointly by Notre Dame’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship and Purdue’s Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship.
• MIND supports three employees, 10 graduate students and five postdoctoral researchers in South Bend, and generates an annual compensation between $700,000 and $800,000 that is being spent in the local economy.
• MIND has worked closely with Project Future on economic development projects.
• More than 1,000 people in South Bend have heard presentations about nanoelectronics and Notre Dame, including about 60 local business, health and educational leaders who participated in a November 2010 event called the “Nanotechnology Plunge,” sponsored by Memorial Hospital and aimed at raising residents’ awareness of nanotechnology research.

Educational programs

Engineering learning center, Stinson-Remick Hall. Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

In addition to the economic impact, MIND has had a significant impact on the educational program offerings of local educational institutions. Educators and other experts envision a well-trained workforce in South Bend that can handle the entire scope of nanotechnology, from associate’s degree-level technicians to researchers with doctoral degrees.

Even as early as middle and high school, teachers are beginning to incorporate concepts of nanotechnology in their coursework, in the hopes of getting students interested early in training for careers in that field.

And Gene Harding couldn’t be happier about that. An associate professor at Purdue University-College of Technology at South Bend, Harding has worked with local high school students to generate interest in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines that can lead to careers in nanotechnology.

“If you talk to industry leaders, you find they’re concerned that they may not be able to replace the existing engineers who are reaching retirement age,” Harding says. “We are trying to get students involved in projects that are fun and that allow them to see how math and science tie into real-world solutions.”

Harding spearheaded the 2010 Project Lead The Way conference in October. The conference, designed to help high school students develop critical-thinking skills, served 100 students who participated in a variety of hands-on projects. Harding’s goal for 2011 is to expand the conference to 120 students and include a session on careers.

‘A symbiotic relationship’

After high school, those who remain in South Bend to further their education will find an increasing number of educational options in nanotechnology.

Ivy Tech Community College-South Bend will become the first campus in the state to offer a nanotechnology associate’s degree program, currently under development. Several Notre Dame faculty members have provided their expertise in determining what the tech training should look like.

“If we are going to attract business to this area, not only do we need the research, but we need our present and graduating students working as interns, technicians and production workers for those companies,” says David Brinkruff, dean of the School of Technology at Ivy Tech.

“It’s said that for every researcher, it takes about 17 support people to perform such tasks as maintaining and running equipment, evaluating the instrumentation, possibly even designing some nanotechnology tools,” Brinkruff says. Ivy Tech’s degree program is being developed to fill that niche.

Having obtained state approval in June, the college has begun interviewing for a program chair, pre-registering students (so far there are 10) and developing courses.

“About half of our curriculum is in general education, so students can begin working on prerequisites now,” Brinkruff says, adding that he hopes to offer the first nanotechnology courses in August 2011.

“Notre Dame has been very helpful to us,” he adds. “They’re very open to us using any of their lab materials and course materials.”

In addition to having access to the Stinson-Remick clean room, Ivy Tech hopes to offer its own clean room.

“It wouldn’t be as clean as the research clean room, but it would be an educational clean room,” Brinkruff says. “That’s clean enough to give students an idea of what’s involved: air shower, suit up and work around highly sensitive electron microscopes and other equipment. The training we will offer is not just how to use the equipment but how to follow the proper protocols.”

‘A growing relationship’

In addition to the technicians who maintain and run the laboratory equipment, the industry will need engineers with expertise in nanotechnology who can plan and design processes to manage the flow of work. That’s where the Purdue University-College of Technology at South Bend fits in.

For 26 years, Purdue University has maintained a quiet but steady presence on the campus of Indiana University-South Bend, offering degrees in the engineering technology program for which the university is famous.

In recent years, the campus has enjoyed “a growing relationship with Notre Dame and Ivy Tech to develop an interrelationship among the programs,” says Michael Sanders, director.

Purdue enjoys access to Notre Dame nanotech resources at the same fee structure that is offered to Ivy Tech.

“It’s a huge benefit to us to have this available to us at the special pricing structure,” Sanders says. “Without Notre Dame’s contribution, our students in materials and manufacturing processing would have to go to West Lafayette and use the laboratory facilities there.”

Engineering learning center, Stinson-Remick Hall. Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Purdue’s new bachelor of science in engineering technology (BSET) degree will be flexible. In addition to the core engineering courses that have traditionally been required at Purdue, students can seek a concentration in nanotechnology with up to 18 elective credit hours. It’s an extension of coursework the campus has already been offering, but with greater emphasis on nanotechnology.

“This is what sets us apart from other technology programs,” says Karl Perusich, associate professor.

“Small locations such as ours mean that there are fewer of the academic silos between departments that are often encountered at larger universities. We won’t have to go through a lengthy approval process in order to create a truly interdisciplinary program.”

Sanders says between 175 and 185 students are enrolled in the program. Looking ahead five years, faculty members say they’d like to see:

• A second location, possibly at Ignition Park, that would include lab space
• Further expansion into local high schools
• A master of science degree in technology for graduates who don’t want to pursue an MBA
• Increased awareness of Purdue’s presence locally, and widespread recognition that the campus is a rich resource for the community.

A new era

Faculty and administrators at all three institutions emphasize the importance of the spirit of cooperation that exists. Without it, they say, the extraordinary changes that are taking place to position the city of South Bend as a viable nanotechnology center simply would not be possible.

That spirit of cooperation will ultimately benefit the entire community in the form of a thoroughly trained workforce that is well prepared to meet the challenges of the nanotechnology industry at all levels.

“Nanotechnology is one of those fields that bring a lot of excitement, and I love seeing that,” says Ivy Tech’s Brinkruff. “It’s a new era, a new undiscovered country, a new opportunity which is coming.”

Publication Date: 
January 2011
Article Type: 
Focus On