Oakton Community College kicks off nanotechnology program
Oakton Community College's John Baliga teaches his "Fundamentals of Nanotechnology" class last month on the Skokie campus. Students are soon to work at the Illinois Science + Technology Park. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 22, 2013 6:11AM
Sometimes the largest step forward comes from the smallest technology.
There’s no better proof of that than the course now being taught at Oakton Community College’s Skokie campus.
“Fundamentals of Nanotechnology” is a response of sorts to the growing need in a science field that demands work at the smallest level.
“There’s definitely a demand for this kind of work, more than before,” said teacher John Baliga before he got ready to teach his course recently at Oakton.
It may have seemed like any other course – a teacher standing in front of a classroom as about a dozen people paid rapt attention to a lecture. But that lecture will prepare these serious-minded students soon for an extraordinary hands-on learning opportunity.
Just blocks from Skokie’s Oakton campus lay the Illinois Science + Technology Park, home to cutting-edge technology companies and other science institutions unlike any other in the region.
Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Most importantly, it’s a budding science in the computer, energy, biotech and transportation fields.
Nanotechnology can improve just about any process, tool, or piece of equipment by vastly increasing the amount of information stored on a computer chip, according to Oakton.
“This process speeds up any computer-based application and can even help doctors target specific cancerous cells for chemotherapy treatment, eliminating potential damage to healthy cells nearby,” Oakton’s website says.
Students before a recent class said they were inspired to get in on the ground floor, because they are convinced jobs will be available in an interesting field – not something every college student today can say, unfortunately.
Oakton estimates that by 2015, the nanotech industry will need two million workers and about six million supporting positions worldwide.
“Fundamentals of Nanotechnology” is a big piece of the new Nanotechnology Employment, Education, and Economic Development Initiative (NE3I), a collaborative effort to bring nanotechnology education not just to Oakton, but eventually to area high schools as well. The Oakton class began in January, the program’s first venture.
Partners include the Village of Skokie; the Illinois Science +Technology Park, which currently houses more than a dozen science and technology companies; and the North Suburban Educational Region for Vocational Education, a career and technical education consortium of nine high schools in Chicago’s northern suburbs.
But what really helped launch the program was a $250,000 grant from The Chicago Community Trust matched by a $250,000 grant from the village, funded through Skokie’s science park tax increment finance fund.
“I really think it’s what tax increment financing was created for,” said Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen when the program was put together.
“One of the things we’ve learned over the last couple of years are these companies are hiring Ph.D.s, but they have work they’d like to do for nanotechnicians,” Van Dusen said. “These are jobs that would begin at $40,000 a year and it would pay upwards of $60,000 to $65,000 a year.”
He said the companies would like to be able to hire the technicians and then deploy their doctorates to do higher math, physics, chemistry and biology work, but there’s a shortage in this field.
Going over the day’s lesson plan, Baliga described for students some of the advances in nanotechnology – even from the time he worked in the field himself.
“It blows my mind,” he said.
Students will soon experience these advances for themselves. Within a month, Baliga said, they were scheduled to perform work using a fluorescent microscope and fabrication tools and other nanotechnology equipment.
And if all goes according to plan, within a few years, they may be doing that work as part of a new career.
An earlier version of this story published in print and online referenced a partnership with NanoInk, a company that was based in the Illinois Science + Technology Park. After the Skokie Review interviewed Oakton Community College officials but before the article was published, NanoInk went out of business, ending their relationship with Oakton.