Faculty News

Developing Inquiry-based Nanobiotechnology Laboratory Experience for Sophomores

Nanobiotechnology is a new field that probes the intersection of nanomaterials with biological molecules and cells. Innovations in nanobiotechnology are driving new medical and industrial applications, including targeted drug delivery, clinical diagnostics, imaging, sensing, tissue engineering, and self-assembly of functional materials. While undergraduate students have no doubt heard of the importance of nanotechnology and nanoscience, relatively few can appreciate how the scale of matter affects the fundamental science or behavior of a system. Most learning on this topic tends to occur in upper-level electives or in senior thesis projects or REU programs. Further, our undergraduate curricula do not include enough exploration-based laboratory courses, in which students work towards solving a problem in collaborative teams, rather than following "step-by-step" lab procedures.

This paper discusses the creation at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) of an inquiry-based series of laboratory modules that are designed to expose students to nanobiotechnology, increase specific skills in nanomaterial synthesis and characterization, augment their interest and confidence in pursuing the subject matter, and encourage them to pursue higher level nano-courses as well as research projects with the support from the NSF CCLI program. Two lab modules, nanopatterned surfaces with relevance for tissue engineering and targeted delivery of therapeutics and creation and evaluation of mechanical properties of nanowires or other nanostructures, are being developed and planned to be offered in Spring 2011 and Spring 2012. This three-credit course will comprise two major sessions:

  1. Lecture and conference for learning background, principles and experimental tools and discussing experimental design and lab results;
  2. Lab activities for learning and using experimental tools, such as scanning electron microscopy, atomic force microscopy, and nanoparticle synthesis and characterization, to carry out the experimental design.

Sophomores from across engineering and science boundaries are expected to participate in the course, working in multidisciplinary teams wherever possible. Working in teams with mentoring from the faculty, students will gain an exposure and appreciation of important nanotechnology tools. Discussion and communication of research results (oral and written) will be emphasized. Participation will improve specific skills needed to succeed in a career in nanobiotechnology. In addition, students in our class will be actively engaged in the mentoring of the next generation of engineers, by participating in Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day and Gadget, which are annual programs for middle school girls and students of color, held at WPI each February. Qualitative and quantitative evaluation methods will be employed to help us improve and guide the course as it progresses, allow us to determine the impact of the course on students’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes and help us ascertain how well we met our goals and objectives.

June 30, 2011