Education-based research leads to nano-science breakthrough – University of Copenhagen

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06 August 2015

Education-based research leads to nano-science breakthrough

Chemistry (And Nano) students

Five years ago the NanoScience bachelor programme at the University of Copenhagen embarked on a wild experiment in education. Students had been grumbling. They had signed up to become nanoscience researchers, but were met with math. So UCPH transformed their first course into a research programme where students designed, executed and analyzed experiments. This year the results are in: An entire year group of students are co-authors on a scientific paper.

The nano students have gone from reading textbooks to writing them. And the science is not trivial. This is a major breakthrough in creating self-assembling molecular electronics using Nano Science, explains Thomas Just Sørensen, an associate professor at the Department of Chemistry's Nano-Science Centre, who was in charge of redesigning the first year coursework.

"We have transformed our first year nano-students from being purely text book readers, to becoming text book chapter writers as well!

Thomas Just Sørensen

Associate professor

Nano-Science Centre

Department of Chemistry

University of Copenhagen

“The most salient news here is that we have transformed our first year nano-students from being purely text book readers, to becoming text book chapter writers as well. But this is also a breakthrough in nanotechnology,” states Associate Professor Sørensen and continues. “Anyone studying science at the university level gets to conduct research at one point or another but I've been reading up on it, and it looks as if this is the first time that an entire class year has collectively published research in a scientific journal.”

First to controll self-assembling molecules

The students have developed a simple process to control what is known as self-assembling molecular electronics. Their breakthrough can make a difference in the development of low-cost, powerful solar energy facilities, as well as in screen technology, and in the development of more environmentally sustainable electronic devices.

Like pouring a perfectly shaped layer cake out of a running blender

Electronic components that can be stirred together in a test tube and self-assemble have been the dream of nanoscience researchers for years. Many researchers have had success with the self-assembly bit. But until now, self-assembling components have been so scattered as to render them useless. A mess that can be compared to a heap of books, as opposed to books neatly arranged upon a shelf, according to Sørensen.

“Our method of self-assembly is analogous to putting cake layers, custard and frosting in a blender and having it all pop out as a perfectly formed layer cake after mixing,” says Thomas Just Sørensen. “We know where all the components are, and which way they turn. And that is extremely important when working with electronics.”

A field well suited for education based research

Nanoscience is a scientific field where biological phenomena and newly developed chemical products are investigated using a wide range of advanced, high-tech methods and machines. As with the rest of UCPH’s science programmes, nanoscience students have access to the same instruments being used by the established research staff, a factor that has lead to these excellent results.

"In nano science you can discover new phenomena wherever you turn your attention. !

Thomas Just Sørensen

Associate professor

Nano-Science Centre

Department of Chemistry

University of Copenhagen

“Nanoscience is particularly well-suited for this new type of teaching-based research. The field is relatively young, and you can discover new phenomena wherever you turn your attention. It is largely a question of sending students off in the right direction,” states Sørensen.

Scientific results from every year of bachelor-programme

The teaching-based research programme at Copenhagen's Nano-Science Center has been in operation since 2010 and has produced scientific results each and every year. The new research project was started up in 2010. In 2011, chemically pure materials were produced. And in 2012, it was concluded that a new design was required. This new research design led to the successful assembly of molecules in 2013. This is when the ‘layer cake’ finally popped out of the blender and the results could be published.

“We had to go through an awful lot of experiments to achieve this result, but the strength of conducting them within an instructional context was that many students could conduct simultaneous tests,” explains Thomas Just Sørensen, adding that, “this has lead to the somewhat unique situation where all current UCPH nanoscience students have contributed to the final result. Therefore, all of our students have ownership of this article.”

New results expected for every coming generation of students

The next step will be to perform the same self-assembly trick with electronically functioning molecules. Just Sørensen has high expectations that it will all work out. So high, that he expects many of the classes in years to come to co-author their successes in future scientific papers.