Undergrads use top-level nanotechnology in new laboratory

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Engineering educators have long believed that the laboratory is an important component of instruction.

The hands-on learning can improve students' critical thinking skills and their understanding of course material. Students in this semester's Electrical Engineering 441 course are getting the best of both worlds; for the first time, their classroom instruction is held in the newly constructed Nanofabrication Laboratory located in the Millennium Science Complex.

Professor of electrical engineering Theresa Mayer said undergraduate students take the class to learn the nanofabrication processes that support silicon integrated circuit technology.

The same steps can be used to fabricate optical devices such as light emitting diodes (LEDs) and lasers, energy harvesting structures such as solar cells, microelectromechical systems (MEMS) such as accelerometers and ultrasound transducers, and even lab-on-a-chip devices for chemical and biomedical analysis.

The class was formerly conducted in a teaching lab that offered only a limited tool set.

"This semester we transitioned the lab into the state-of-the-art nanofabrication research cleanroom," Mayer said. "We are now able to integrate more advanced processes that are commonly used in industry today."

Electrical engineering professor Srinivas Tadigadapa said he taught the EE 441 class for the last several years, when it was still conducted in the older laboratory facilities.

While the previous lab still offered a great learning experience, its 30-year-old equipment cannot compare with the sophisticated nanofabrication lab.

"Students need to see what is contemporary," Tadigadapa said. "Here they have exposure to the newest technology, using the latest materials."

Eugene Freeman, a doctoral candidate and EE 441 teaching assistant, said the class observes the steps involved in creating modern silicon transistor devices and circuits through a series of experiments.

The class emphasizes the importance of how all of these steps come together to make working devices by taking them through the entire process, from beginning to end. Without having access to the tools available in the nanofabrication cleanroom, this would not be possible.

One such process, atomic layer deposition (ALD), is one of the most important steps in a modern silicon transistor fabrication process, according to Freeman. It is required to make high-performance integrated circuits used in today's smartphones and laptops.

"By incorporating modern techniques in our process we ensure Penn State students have the knowledge to be competitive in the semiconductor industry," Freeman said.

Mayer said that advanced processes like ALD were not available in the teaching lab.

"By bringing undergrads into the state-of-the-art research lab, we can give them much better educational and training experience using state-of-the-art tools," she said.

Because the technology available in the lab is applicable to so many fields, many disciplines are represented in the EE 441 class.

This semester, aerospace, computer science, materials science and electrical engineering students are taking the course. Mayer said there are often students from physics, chemistry and mechanical engineering as well.

"I think there's a lot of excitement," Mayer said. "The course is already oversubscribed for next semester."

Last Updated November 24, 2014