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Students run lab experiments all the time - and then look up the answers to verify their results.
But soon, because of a two-year grant for $200,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF), undergraduate students taking core courses in five different departments will be doing experiments in which the "right" answer is not known.
"The uniqueness of our project is integrating research-based modules into the undergraduate curriculum," says Asst. Prof. Jackie Zhang of civil and environmental engineering and principal investigator on the grant. "This places undergrads at the forefront of technology development. It's exciting to know that you're working on something completely new." Joining Zhang on the proposal were Profs. Clifford Bruell of civil and environmental engineering, Mark Hines of biological sciences, Arthur Watterson of chemistry and Carol Barry of plastics engineering.
About 400 students will be involved in the new modules that will fit into 11 courses. Graduate students will handle the "quality control" - doing the experiments themselves to verify results. In addition, four undergraduate researchers will be part of the grant, working closely with the grad students, and may very well have research publication credits before they graduate.
Nanotechnology research is exciting on several fronts.
"Nanomanufacturing will generate new kinds of waste, such as carbon nanotubes," says Zhang. "We'll study their effects in the environment - in wastewater or local streams. A class in microbiology will evaluate the impact of different materials on cell growth; a class in hydrogeology will track the ecological effects.
"We're anticipating potential problems, so that we can suggest modified manufacturing processes before the nanomanufacturing facilities are even built."
At the same time, nanotechnology offers promise for improved remediation of existing pollution, such as lead that leaches into drinking water from mining operations, car batteries, lead pipes and electronics manufacturing. The harmful effects on children's growth and mental development are well documented.
"We had tried everything to remove lead from wastewater," says Zhang. "Now we have very exciting results using the nano encapsulation technology developed by Art Watterson. It chelates the lead and we can remove 99.7 percent of the lead in water."
The grant to UMass Lowell was one of just 12 granted out of 87 applications to the Nanotechnology in Undergraduate Education (NUE) program at NSF.