Lab Development for Nanotechnology Programs

“In lecture, you can learn about things. In lab, you can learn how to do things. Engineers learn by doing.”

Dr. James Brenner at Florida Institute of Technology

Dr. James Brenner, Department of Chemical Engineering, Florida Institute of Technology

The idea of creating a nanotechnology minor was many years in the making for Drs. James Brenner and Kurt Winkelmann at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT). Chemical engineers apply knowledge combined from chemistry, math, physics, and economics. Adding nanotechnology to this list required the capability of examining materials on the nanoscopic scale to provide students hands-on learning.

“In lecture, you can learn about things,” Brenner said. “In lab, you can learn how to do things. Engineers learn by doing.”

Hands-on Instruments to Teach Nanotechnology
Materials Characterization Laboratory
Student Perspectives

Hands-on Instruments to Teach Nanotechnology

To reach the nanometer scale, three Nanosurf scanning tunneling microscopes (STM) and two atomic force microscopes (AFM) from Nanoscience Instruments were added to the facilities. The current nanotechnology minor program at FIT includes a freshman Nanotechnology I laboratory, and three-credit upper level Materials Characterization and Nanotechnology II laboratory classes.

No other nanotechnology program in the country has as many lab credits in this discipline,” Brenner said. “That makes our program far more hands-on than our competition.”

Students in the Nanotechnology lab at Florida Institute of Technology prepare magnetic ferrofluidsStudents in the Nanotechnology lab at Florida Institute of Technology prepare magnetic ferrofluids

traxSTM_and_traxAFM_w.pngMagnetic ferrofluids are then imaged using scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and atomic force microscope (AFM)

The freshman level laboratory class accepts 24 students a semester and combines synthesis with characterization. When learning scanning electron or probe microscopy, students are divided into sets so there are no more than 3 students per instrument. These classes require a minimum grade of B for the general chemistry course prerequisite.

By the end of the semester, students can make their own STM tips, load an AFM probe, set up each instrument, gold sputter samples for electron microscopy, acquire images and perform EDS mapping on an SEM. Many of the syntheses are on the University of Wisconsin Materials Research Science and Engineering Center website at

Materials Characterization Laboratory

The Materials Characterization lab has two sections of 10 students each who are supervised by a professor and a TA. This 5:1 ratio works well. The first week of class has high-intensity lectures covering instrument principles and design as well as practical aspects. Students must pass a take-home exam to qualify for training on the equipment. The importance of preventing damage to the equipment is stressed before any student can access the lab. Brenner talks about risk minimization and how to make sure that the equipment is in working condition through proper training of his students.

“A professor’s biggest fear with teaching nanotechnology lab courses is that the instrument will break,” explains Dr. Brenner. They have developed a method of teaching to minimize the risk.

“It helps that the instruments are robust,” commended Dr. Brenner. All but one of the issues encountered on the AFMs and STMs were corrected within 24 hours. Students are also tasked with creating troubleshooting checklists for each piece of equipment.

The first sessions in the laboratory are set up in advance by the professor. Example images are previewed on the instruments. AFM and STM samples and tips are pre-loaded so students can learn how to get comfortable running the equipment. Students are closely supervised during the learning process.

Phases and atomic force microscope image of ammonium hydrogen phosphate (AHP) from nanotechnology lab at FIT Structural changes of ammonium hydrogen phosphate (AHP) are followed using atomic force microscopy (AFM)

The next portion of the course uses the same technique of lectures with an exam to introduce scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) before students begin learning the instrumentation.

The last third of the semester encompasses a research project. Students decide what samples to create and how to characterize them with different instrumentation. The project must be cost-effective and have the potential to be taught in future laboratory classes.

These classes give students training and experience to gain competency on more expensive research-grade equipment. Students who perform well in the Materials Characterization laboratory class are then eligible to be teaching assistants in the freshman level lab class.

Dr. Brenner and Dr. Winkelmann are writing a manual about how to develop a nanotechnology laboratory. They are looking for beta testers and would “gladly help others learn how to set up a program.”

Student Perspectives

So what did the students think about the nanotechnology laboratory classes? Here’s feedback after a semester in the lab:

  • Hands-on experience was invaluable!
  • Seeing atomic structure of different samples was one of the best parts of the class.
  • Some students wished they had taken the optional opportunities to join other sections and to try more advanced samples.
  • Peer teaching was helpful and students realized they could have done this more too.

Dr. Brenner can be contacted at