Nanotechnology at Waterloo: Impressions of a first-year student

What is nanotechnology? I’ve been asked this question numerous times during the past year, and I am currently in the process of generating a suitable response. However, the following paragraphs might provide you with a start to this highly sought-after answer. Unfortunately, I won’t be talking about nano-bots and groundbreaking advances in cancer research. Not because those things aren’t within grasp or don’t exist, but simply because that’s not what a high school student applying for nanotechnology engineering should immediately expect (also consider the fact that I’m not quite there yet). As my waning co-op term begins to mark the end of a rich (certainly not in the literal sense of the word) first year, I believe I have enough information to provide a brief overview of my experiences so far.

Nanotechnology requires a broad base of “basic” knowledge, and a nanotechnologist (hopefully that’s a word by now) eventually needs to be adept in a wide variety of subject areas. Though this is true for most engineering courses, it should be specially noted for this particular course. Here’s a complete list of my first-year courses: Introduction to Nanotechnology, Calculus 1, Calculus 2, Linear Algebra, Engineering Computation, Chemical Principles, Probability and Statistics, Introduction to Materials Science, Physics, Health Risk Assessment, and Organic Chemistry. With courses such as Electromagnetism and Biochemistry coming up for us next term, it is apparent that our ‘broad base of basic knowledge’ is still far from complete. However, I assure you that some lectures can be far from basic.

Your brightest students might smirk modestly at the previous point — just as I used to. Even so, consider the following: my class of approximately 120 students had the highest incoming high school average in the whole university for 2012. I am not familiar with the exact number, but it is safe to say that the majority of my nano colleagues had an incoming average of 90% or higher. We were the spitting image of egotistical students with ultra-high expectations. Note the use of the word ‘were.’ Did many people need to seek extra help after lectures? Almost everyone. Did a lot of us fail certain exams? Yes. I don’t mean to scare anyone — almost half of us still ended with an 80+ average in the first term. But that was all thanks to keeping on top of assignments, asking questions, and long study sessions before exams. Personally, I still had plenty of time to socialize and go out with friends. It hasn’t been a cake-walk, but the course isn’t created by malicious professors driven by schadenfreude either (contrary to popular belief).

The primary question on your mind: “So why is this article in a chemistry magazine?” It may not be too apparent from the list of course names, but chemistry is the most stressed subject in this program. Yes, it’s true; we do more chemistry than the chemical engineers. Chemical Principles is actually two first-year chemistry courses squeezed into one. Our first-year Organic Chemistry course is normally a second year course. Chemistry is also highly emphasized in other subjects such as Materials Science. Although this was, for some reason, a surprise to some of us, it makes perfect sense. To be able to eventually work at the nano-scale, we need a sufficient understanding of all interactions that take place at the atomic scale. Personally, this has been a pleasant surprise. During high school, I was not much different than most students regarding chemistry. I enjoyed the little demos, yearned for explosions that never occurred, didn’t label my beakers, and hated mole calculations. Sure, most of that hasn’t changed, but I’ve developed a special love for this subject over the past year. Both of my chemistry professors so far have been outstanding. My favourite first-year subject was Organic Chemistry — no calculations! However, on behalf of a significant portion of my class: please do not entirely skip topics such as orbital hybridization and organic nomenclature. First year chemistry can be quite painful if one is entirely unfamiliar with such topics.

On an unrelated last note: co-op is wonderful! The majority of courses at the University of Waterloo offer co-op, and students should always consider enrolling in a co-op program as opposed to a regular program (blatant advertising). For most programs, this will increase the length of your undergraduate studies from four years to five years. Nevertheless, the work experience and economic advantage this will provide students will be far greater than just “worth it.”

Hopefully, this brief overview of my first year has coaxed you into presenting Nanotechnology as a favourable undergraduate option to your students (blatant advertising once again). If I were allowed to go back in time, would I re-pick Nanotechnology at Waterloo as my first choice? Yes, without a doubt. It’s the stuff of the future, and it will make all your sci-fi dreams come true; who wouldn’t want to be a part of it?