June 23, 2008 — In the grand scope of scientific understanding, the study of nanoscale carbon materials represents the new school.
It has been little more than 20 years since the discovery of "buckyballs," hollow spherical molecules made entirely of carbon atoms, which serve as the starting point for this field of study. In 1996, Richard Errett Smalley won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the breakthrough. While there have been accomplishments at the pinnacle of academics in this emerging field, there is still a need for more accessible introductory curricula.
Mool Gupta, a professor in the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science's Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Harry Dorn, a professor in Virginia Tech's Department of Chemistry, are teaming up to meet that need.
As the two discussed the possibility of a cross-university research project in nanoscale carbon materials, or nanocarbon materials, the idea of teaching a course on the subject surfaced. Dorn would bring his intimate knowledge of fullerenes, the molecular building blocks of nanocarbon materials, to the table and Gupta would bring expertise in the creation of carbon nanotubes and devices for technology such as photovoltaic energy cells.
"There are a few books for nanocarbon materials, but not effective introductory books," Gupta said. "Here was an opportunity for team-teaching — for breaking new ground in introducing these concepts."
The 142 miles between Virginia Tech and University of Virginia were not a deterrent as the two began a distance-teaching course that involved 23 students in nine different locations in Virginia, Maryland and New York. Connected through real-time interactive video conferencing, students were able to listen to lectures and interact as a class, despite their separate locations.
"This course provides students with access to knowledge about the field that would otherwise not be available," said James Groves, assistant dean for research and outreach at U.Va.'s Engineering School. "Without distance learning technology, it would not be possible to connect professors Gupta and Dorn to each other and to a distributed group of students. Through this course and the related distance learning initiative, we are making experts in nanotechnology available to many students around the Commonwealth who would otherwise not have such access."
Thanks to a $600,000 Virginia Partnership for Nanotechnology Education and Workforce Development Grant from the National Science Foundation's Partnerships for Innovation Program, an ongoing $150,000 per year award from the Virginia General Assembly, and the coordinating support of the Commonwealth Graduate Engineering Program, the class was offered to university students across Virginia, as well as to non-traditional students working in government and the private sector. In addition to students from University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, students attended the class from distance learning facilities at the College of William and Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University, the National Institute of Aerospace in Hampton, Va., the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va.. and General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y.
At the end of a semester, complete with class presentations on the latest research in the field and demonstrations via video conference, students from each location traveled in person to Virginia Tech to synthesize nanocarbon materials in the lab. The next day, they transported the materials to the University of Virginia to build and test a functioning photovoltaic energy device.
While the distance-learning and team-teaching approach proved an effective way to teach the course, it did come with challenges for both the professors and the students.
"I was not totally receptive at first," Dorn said. "I had never taught a distance learning course and there were some adjustments I had to make. For example, how do you do demonstrations and illustrate concepts long distance? I was pleasantly surprised at how effective it was and how positively the students responded."
The varied nature of the course material required some adjustment for students as well. The course itself is a cross-fertilization that spans many disciplines, including engineering, chemistry, physics, materials, and medical and energy related applications. Dorn sensed that engineering students were initially leery about understanding some of the chemistry, and vice versa for the chemistry students.
"I think we all developed a deeper appreciation for each of these disciplines and also for the opportunity to work with new materials that not many people in the world have access to," Dorn said.
Rama Rajan, who recently graduated with a master's degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech, believes the novel subject matter and its interdisciplinary nature made for a rewarding student experience.
"It was a very interesting experience for me as I had no idea about the nanocarbon field before I took this course," she said. "The extent of research, advancement and the potential applications totally amazed me. I really liked the interdisciplinary efforts that were popping up everywhere. It is wonderful to see people working together toward a common goal."
Overall, students had a positive experience. In their class evaluations, they often cited the end-of-the semester lab sessions as one of the most valuable, and memorable, aspects of the class.
Maria Rodriguez, who is pursuing her master's degree in electrical and computer engineering at U.Va. as part of the Commonwealth Graduate Engineering Program, took the distance learning course from the U.Va. Northern Virginia Continuing Education Center in Falls Church. Despite the travel time and distance, she was glad to make the trip to both Virginia Tech and U.Va. to apply her knowledge in the lab.
"Certainly and without a doubt, the laboratory sessions at Virginia Tech and U.Va. were the most rewarding part of the class." Rodriguez said. "This gave us the opportunity to have a hands-on experience and make the connection between the theory and concepts and the real device and chemical synthesis."
While the athletic rivalry between U.Va. and Virginia Tech remains healthy, this class has shown that academia is fertile ground for a meeting of the minds. Team-teaching and distance-learning are not only benefiting students at both of these universities, but also a diverse group of students from throughout the Commonwealth and beyond.
"It's vital that we collaborate in the Commonwealth," Gupta said. "We are competing academically with institutions throughout the U.S. and around the world. Coming together for research and education will help us to be more competitive, win research grants and move research forward to make a positive impact on our society."