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Nanomanufacturing: Pushing the Boundaries of Scale, Speed and Learning

November 11, 2013
In the lab

By Aja Couchois Duncan

November 4, 2013

Nanotechnology is a relatively new field at the confluence of physics, science, and engineering, but its impact on our lives is astounding. From the phones and computers we use to the solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity, nanotechnology is pushing our understanding of what is possible.

Aneesh in the Nano Lab

Nanomanufacturing refers to the production of nano-scaled materials—meaning a billionth in size—and it is used in a multitude of electronics and other non-biological technologies. As the site of some of the most important technological advancements in the last few decades, Nanomanufacturing is a popular course in Stanford’s School of Engineering. This fall, EE292L: Nanomanufacturing was delivered for the second time as a flipped style course, engaging students with its Discovery-Channel-like video approach, guest lectures by Silicon Valley innovators and experts in the field, and thought-provoking in-classroom demonstrations using real products from current industries.

According to instructor Aneesh Nainani, a consulting assistant professor in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, the course offers an opportunity for students to explore the field of nanotechnology and “to see how developments at nano-scale are impacting the electronics they use in everyday life.”

Innovation in Teaching and Learning  

By “flipping” the traditional lecture format for online videos that students can watch on their own and using in-class time for guest speakers and demonstrations, Nainani is maximizing class time for those activities which are most engaging for students. And a faculty seed grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL) has helped him do just that. “The grant enabled us to develop techniques to improve the baseline content of the course, enhance the in-class experience, and test the effectiveness of the teaching method,” he says. 

Nanomanufacturing instructor Aneesh Nainani visits iFixIt Labs to disassemble early prototypes and the most up-to-date iterations of Apple’s laptop computers, iPods, and iPhones, tracking the advancements in drives and chips toward thinner, lighter, smaller and thus more mobile, electronic devices.

The grant has paid off. The videos themselves are not simply recorded lectures, rather they are digital learning events that use innovative production and postproduction techniques— such as different camera angles with fast cuts and upbeat music to create a dramatic pace. The videos were shot on location at iFixIt Labs, Stanford’s Nanofabrication Facility in the Clark Center and Stanford’s Data Center, and using a camera-mounted quadra-copter for aerial views of the 2013 Solar Decathlon and close examination of the solar panels on the rooftop of the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building (Y2E2), Stanford’s new cutting edge model of sustainability. 

Using a remote-controlled quadra-copter, Nanomanufacturing instructor Aneesh Nainani examines solar panels to identify different solar cell designs and their implications for the future of solar technology.

In each ten to fifteen-minute segment, Nainani leads viewers through an action-packed investigation of current nanomanufacturing. In one particular segment, Nainani and his peers explore the evolution of today’s most popular gadgets, taking apart early prototypes and the most up-to-date iterations of Apple’s laptop computers, iPods, and iPhones, tracking the advancements in drives and chips toward thinner, lighter, smaller and thus more mobile, electronic devices. In another segment, using a remote-controlled quadra-copter, he looks closely at a variety of solar panels to identify different solar cell designs and their implications for the future of solar technology. 

Bringing Cutting-Edge Industry to Students

Nainani was drawn to the field of nanomanufacturing out of an inherent love of physics and understanding how things work. “You can start with some basic truths and begin to understand the whole world around you,” he says. “This begins with the macro level, but can be taken down to the smallest level, to the nano-scale. It is really amazing to begin to understand things going on at the nano-scale and see how it connects to current industries and the products we use every day. That is why the demonstrations and the guest lectures are such an important component of the class. They provide a great opportunity for students to connect with the industry.”

The guest lecture aspect of the course has garnered a lot of praise from students. According to Pranav Pai, an engineering student at Stanford, the guest speakers who were invited to present contributed key insights. “They spoke about the most recent, relevant, and innovative developments dealing with subject matter that we had studied that week in class,” he says. “This helped me gain an immediate sense of context about how crucial and impactful the material we were going through could be toward real industrial and technological innovation. And it gave us access to perspectives derived from decades worth of work in the field, which is invaluable to an engineer looking to enter the industry himself.”

According to Nainani, “Nanomanufacturing is a field that is happening right here, right now, so it is possible to invite people working in start-ups, venture capitalists, and scientists working in the semiconductor industry.”

Stanford engineering student Archana Kumar says, “The flipped class structure gives you time to catch up on the basic concepts outside of class through the short videos at your own time and pace, while the class itself is devoted to more interesting things like product teardowns and guest lectures from industry people. Although it takes up a little more time than a normal lecture class, it makes up for this by providing a much better variety of content.” 

Taking Advantage of Faculty Seed Grants

According to John Mitchell, Vice Provost for Online Learning, “The seed grants are designed to support faculty, departments and programs in creating innovative and engaging teaching and learning environments.” Last academic year, there were 39 seed grant recipients: 14 in the fall, 15 in winter, and 10 in the spring quarter. Nainani was one of them.

“As a result of the grant, we have been able to enhance the second iteration of the course in two critical ways: using the video component to take students on virtual field trips— something that would be too logistically complex to do otherwise—and moving some of the course content to be accessible on mobile or tablet devices,” Nainani says. “Students also used tablets to create screencast videos for their final project that they graded using a peer evaluation system.”

Dr. Amy Collier, the director for digital learning initiatives for VPOL sees the impact of the seed grants on teaching and learning at Stanford everyday. “The purpose is not to simply create Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs),” she says. “Rather, it is to unleash faculty creativity in using digital tools and digital learning for a variety of learning environments, ones that support Stanford students.”

“When we hand seed grants application off to the review committee” Collier says, “we ask them to look at three things: innovation (Are we going to learn something from it?); impact (How does project impact Stanford students?); and assessment (How will this impact be evaluated and what will we learn as a result?). The area that poses the biggest challenge for faculty tends to be assessment piece. While there is no standard tool set for this, there are resources that faculty can reach out to in this area. Obviously there is VPOL, but there is also the Center for Teaching & Learning and Institutional Research and Decision Services (IRDS). Often there are resources within the schools themselves.”

Two people

To address the assessment component of the grant requirement, Nainani produced a report, reflecting key takeaways from the course. Using student video participation data, he was able to assess online student engagement with course content (when they watched and for how long). Based on this assessment, Nainani realized he had front loaded the course and, as a result, online participation had dropped toward the end of the quarter. In future course iterations, he will be able to better align video uploads with course deadlines to create a more even pattern of online engagement and thus learning. 

Nainani is a vocal advocate of the flipped class model. “There used to be a time,” he says, “when professors had to just delivers lectures in class and crack a few jokes. But with the advent of online teaching methods, we have to become creative screencasters and producers. There is a new skill set required and faculty need to adapt to advance the future of higher education.”

For faculty interested in integrating online learning tools, Nainani has some advice, “Don’t just take a traditional lecture course and break the lectures into short videos. The best flipped courses are designed from the ground up. Each segment needs to stand on its own; it must be educational and entertaining.” In short, each segment must engage students’ attention and ignite their imagination. 

Notes Nainani, “the seed grant gives you a lot of independence to experiment with online course content. Not everything you do will work, but a grant that supports learning and experimentation is the most fun to apply for and receive.”

For additional information regarding the Faculty Seed Grant Program, please go to the Faculty Seed Grant page of the VPOL website. Proposal for individual faculty seed grants are due November 15th. For department-level or program-level grants, please submit a Letter of Intent by November 15th and a full proposal by February 21, 2014.

For faculty interested in creating public/blended courses or developing online educational content or tools, go to the Getting Started resource page.