Materials Science Goes Nano at Eau Claire

An Interview with Dr. Doug Dunham and Dr. Marc McEllistrem at University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire

Materials Science lab class  with AFM at Eau Claire

Materials Science lab class with AFM at Eau Claire

The University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire is a liberal education university with a strong focus on undergraduate research and other “immersion experiences.” Recently, the university developed a unique major in materials science - an option to carry out an emphasis in nanoscience. The major has a strong foundation in math and science coupled with a liberal education approach but without the traditional engineering emphasis. The major in materials science grew in part out of the formation of the UW-EC Materials Science Center (MSC). Dr. Doug Dunham is the director of the Center and Dr. Marc McEllistrem is director of the academic program.

Nanoscience Instruments spoke with them about their vision for Materials Science at UW-EC. The MRC currently has eight Nanosurf® easyScan 2 atomic force microscopes which are used in courses and for student research. One of the considerations while designing the lab was to keep the student-instrument ratio low. The instruments needed a modest learning curve for operating, easy & fast setup, and a robust design. Typically, two students use one AFM in order to get a thorough and in-depth experience.

Dr. Dunham teaches the upper level materials course for majors. His students already have a basic understanding of materials science and they are very motivated and focused. Students make their own samples and then characterize them with the AFM and other techniques. Samples include polystyrene beads dispersed on a substrate of their choice, metal foils, nanowires and PMMA mixtures. The idea behind the course is to use various characterization techniques to develop a comprehensive understanding of novel materials.

Dr. McEllistrem teaches the introductory materials course and some of his students are not science majors. He enjoys this impressionable crowd as they all start out with little or no science background. The challenge to Dr. McEllistrem is getting them excited about nanotechnology. He uses a variety of samples from the Nanosurf Extended AFM sample kit which allows the students to quickly get started. Once the students master imaging with the AFM, they image their own samples like nanowires and polystyrene beads. He has also acquired a desktop SEM and found that it complements the AFMs well.

When looking to outfit their laboratory with AFMs for the first time, Drs. Dunham and McEllistrem chose the easyScan products primarily due to their ease-of-use, portability and affordability. Dr. Dunham likes the fact that the AFMs can be stored away easily in their carrying cases. This frees up valuable lab space for other instruments when the AFMs are not in use. The assembly and disassembly is extremely simple as well.

“Students bring out the AFMs when they need them for experiments and put them away after they are done. It is as simple as that.” says Dr. Dunham.

Dr. McEllistrem thinks the easyScan is extremely well-designed and is pleased about how robust it is. He likes the fact that it can withstand rough handling the freshmen inevitably put it though.

“We are not afraid to let the students use it” he says. “In fact, we encourage even high school students use our AFMs.”

He also likes the intuitive software. His freshman students do not have any problems learning the intricacies of the instrument. After completing the four-year program at Eau Claire, students either seek employment in the industrial sector or stay in academia to pursue higher education. Drs. Dunham and McEllistrem want their students to be ahead of the curve, whatever their career choice. They interface with local industries and give them access to their equipment, hoping to ultimately create a job market for their students. They also encourage other educators to give them feedback about their “unconventional” program at a liberal arts college. To find out more, or to provide feedback, please contact Dr. Doug Dunham at dunhamdj@uwec.edu and Dr. Marc McEllistrem at mcellimt@uwec.edu.