Technical Degree Jobs – Learn From Real Technicians On The Talking Technicians Podcast

Talking Technicians Podcast
Real Technicians with Real Jobs – Hear their personal stories.

Technical degrees often lead to better paying jobs. “Will this help me get a good job?” is often one of the first questions a student has about a technical degree or certificate program.

The Talking Technicians podcast with Peter Kazarinoff from Portland Community College supported by the Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC) is setting out to answer that question by asking the people working in the field: Who they are, what they do, and how they got there. Perhaps like you, they also wondered about which technical degree path to pursue. 

Every month, Peter talks to real technicians working in a variety of technical industries. Many industries have entry-level jobs that do not require a 4-year college degree, or any degree, but most trade and technical jobs want their employees to have a basic understanding of technical and safety concepts, at minimum. A two-year technical degree offered at most community colleges around the nation is

Peter actively teaches technicians and engineers at Portland Community College. In each episode, roughly 15 minutes in length, you will meet a working technician and hear their story. In addition to the uplifting personal stories from these technicians, at the end of each episode,  Peter shares steps you can take to become a technician, too. 

You can listen directly here on the MNT-EC Talking Technicians page or find it on Apple or Google podcasts, or the Talking Technicians YouTube Playlist (here are a few listed in order): 

Stay tuned and Subscribe for more stories and details about how technicians around the USA have pursued a technical degree or certificate and found a great job that they love. 

The MNT-EC, including the Talking Technicians podcast, is funded by the National Science Foundation. 

Pasadena City College Builds National Approach To Micro Nano Technology Education

In 2020, Pasadena City College (PCC) received a $7.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation ​Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program to develop new approaches to teaching students about micro nano technology. 

The new “Micro-Nano Technology Education Center” (MNT-EC) will be a collaborative center that brings together various educational institutions (30 and counting) and private corporations in micro-nano technology fields. PCC Natural Sciences professor Jared Ashcroft will lead the effort, drawing together researchers, scientists, educators, and industry professionals from a growing network of schools and industry.

According to a recent PCC article by Alexander Boekelheide, PCC to lead $7 million effort to expand nanotechnology education, in an interview with Dr. Ashcroft: “Community colleges have to evolve in what they teach. We need to converge these different technologies so we can prepare students for future jobs, not the jobs in the field of five years ago. Industry and research are driving nanotechnology forward and it’s time for us to have our teaching be a part of that,” he said.

From the NSF grant award, there are four major objectives (you can also read more on the About page) for the new Micro Nano Technology Education Center. Dr. Ashcroft clarified how the Center is continuing to learn and adapt in comments below.

  1. Develop coordinated national approach to advance Micro- Nano Education.
  2. Deliver professional development to enhance knowledge, skills, and abilities.
  3. Conduct strategic outreach, recruitment, and retention of traditional and under-represented faculty and students.
  4. Create a deep industry/education alliance that supports student success.

Develop coordinated national approach to advance Micro- Nano Education

There are currently several advanced technological education programs in nano. It is very challenging for a community college or K-12 school to know which programs curriculum and activities are optimal. The MNT-EC will bring the current curriculum and activities to one site and delineate appropriate grade levels for each activity. If we can get a consistent approach to MNT education that is vetted and organized to grade level so it is easier for educators to implement in the classroom it will be a success.

Deliver professional development to enhance knowledge, skills, and abilities

Success in this area will be if we can find 10 partner sites that utilize the professional development in their classrooms and to have 5 actively engaged community college MNT-based technical education programs that are each awarding a minimum of ten certificates.

There are several current professional development opportunities in MNT through all the partners. The MNT-EC goal is to support these professional development activities, but more importantly once the workshops are over to continually engage the participants to keep the interest in nano tech education implementation in their coursework or programs going. 

Conduct strategic outreach, recruitment, and retention of traditional and under-represented faculty and students

The goal of MNT-EC is to provide opportunities to all students in micro and nano technical education. The majority of students, especially at community colleges are unaware of the opportunities in technical education and do not have any idea what a nano-based career can look like.

In addition, we want to increase awareness and participation in MNT-based academic and career paths with a focus on recruitment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs). We will utilize undergraduate research opportunities as a means to provide hands-on experiences in micro and nanotechnology, which has been shown to increase success in all students, but especially with underrepresented students.

Create a deep industry/education alliance that supports student success

In terms of student awareness and success, the Center’s emphasis is on showcasing the jobs available in microtechnology and nanotechnology. There are several major organizations or corporations looking for technicians: Intel, Micron, national government labs, such as, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, among others. If we’re honest and practical, when a student evaluates a degree path, they are ultimately asking — Can I get a job in this field? If the answer is not obvious and the path clear, they are not likely to even take the first step. Colleges with micro and nano programs need to change that. 

Currently we are organizing a Business Industry Leadership Team. Success will be that industry partners actively engage with the MNT-EC and provide insight on what technologies we should be preparing our students so they are ready when entering the micro nanotechnology workforce.

The MNT-EC, in less than a year, has started collaborations with the following institutions and organizations. You can visit the MNT Partner Page, or feel free to peruse the list shared below. Partners are a group of educators and professionals who contribute to MNT-EC’s products and services. They provide vetted content, professional development opportunities, and expert mentoring services through MNT-EC.            

Academic Partners

ATE Partners

Industry Partners    


Photonics Education Seeing Career Growth For Graduates

As part of the Micro Nano Technology Education Center Summer Seminar Series, Greg Kepner and Frank Reed presented on the photonics field and job opportunities in this exciting career path. 

In this comprehensive presentation, Kepner and Reed shared from the basic “What is photonics?” (definition shared below) to “What do technicians do and where do they work” as well as some excellent resources if you are interested in working in this field (or simply learning about it).

What is Photonics?

“The science and technology of generating (lasers), manipulating (optics), and detecting (electro-optics) particles of light (photons).”

The presentation included the following areas:

  • What are some photonics applications?
  • What about photonics education?
  • What do photonics technicians do? 
  • Where do photonics technicians work?
  • How can I attend a photonics workshop?
  • How do lasers work?
  • Are lasers safe?
  • Where can I find more photonics resources?

According to O’NET at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a “Photonics Technician – Build, install, test, or maintain optical or fiber optic equipment such as lasers, lenses, or mirrors using spectrometers, interferometers, or related equipment.” 2019 median wages were $62,990. 

Kepner highlighted that the Indian Hills Community College (IHCC) started the Midwest Photonics Education Center (MPEC) in 2014 as an NSF ATE Regional Center, however, the IHCC Laser & Optics Technology program began in the mid-1980s. IHCC has a list of 140 companies that have hired its photonics graduates. 

The IHCC Laser & Optics Technology program graduates have averaged over 95 percent job placement consistently for the past decade. According to Instructor Michael Shay, nine companies are already scheduled to participate in the IHCC annual “Presentation and Interview Week” in March.

From the larger list of 140 companies, 26 companies (image below) have hired graduates in the last five years alone. Many of the hiring companies are 100 employees or less, but quite a few are big names that students and job candidates will recognize: Texas Instruments, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Boston Scientific, and Medtronic, to call out just a few. 

According to Kepner, who recently attended the Congressional Optics & Photonics Caucus, it was reported that “industry growth was continuing and politicians are starting to understand the importance of photonics as an enabling technology to defense, security, manufacturing, communications, and many other industries.” 

Photonics Job Opportunities for IHCC graduates in Laser and Optics. Placement from 2015-2020
Photonics Technology Education Leads to Jobs

Photonics Education

A 2012 national survey titled “Industry Demand for Two-Year College Graduates in Optics and Photonics Technology,” showed the Midwest region’s 500 photonics-driven companies project a need for an additional 939 technicians over the next five years. That need has only grown for the 2020s. Some of the Photonics job hot spots are in New York, Florida, California, and Montana.

If you want to learn more about the photonics industry and career path, technologies that include optics and electronics (lasers, fiber-optics, electro-optics), visit the IHCC Laser & Optics Technology program page.

Technical Note — Sample of reported job titles in the field of Photonics: Fiber Optics Technician, Laser Technician, Optomechanical Technician, Photonic Laboratory Technician (Photonic Lab Tech), and Photonics Technician.

This summer on July 28-29, MNT-EC will offer a photonics professional development opportunity with an introductory Fundamentals of Photonics workshop that includes the theory of light and lasers along with practical hands-on laboratory activities.

Stay tuned to this page for upcoming professional development workshops and other faculty opportunities. Educators can also use the Micro Nano Technology calendar to keep up with a wide range of professional development and curriculum.

Mentor-Connect Guides Faculty Toward Successful Submission of NSF ATE Proposals

Leading Fortune 500 companies have improved employee retention by as much as 75 percent through mentoring initiatives. A recent MentorcliQ (a mentoring software company) study found that becoming more involved in mentoring as mentors or sponsors, leads to a culture of learning, development, and camaraderie. 

Mentor-Connect (M-C) is a free service to help two-year college STEM faculty prepare competitive grant proposals for submission to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Program.

Since its 2012 launch, 141 ATE proposals have been submitted from 164 colleges that have participated in the first eight cohorts (86% submission rate). Overall,160 two-year technical colleges have been served by the Mentor-Connect New-to-ATE project with 41 states reached as well as Puerto Rico and American Samoa (US territories) with Cohorts 1 through 9.

During the MNT-EC seminar series, Mel Cossette, Greg Kepner, and Elaine Craft discussed what Mentor-Connect is, how they are working with the Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC) and how they guide faculty from two year institutions to write an NSF proposal for the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) directorate that focuses on technician education. 

According to the M-C website section, Get A Mentor, Mentor-Connect offers three types of no-cost mentoring to community colleges seeking to improve technician and related STEM education through projects funded by NSF ATE. Online applications are available on site.

  • New-to-ATE (Deadline: October 8, 2021). This mentor program helps colleges develop grant proposals for the Small Grants for Institutions New to ATE track. (Colleges are considered new to ATE if they have not received ATE funding in the past seven years.)
  • Second-Chance (Deadline: April 1, 2021). Mentor-Connect invites colleges interested in reworking and resubmitting New-to-ATE proposals that were initially declined when submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to apply for Second-Chance Mentoring. Eligible colleges include:
    • (1) those whose first proposal to the Small Grants for Institutions New to ATE was declined, and
    • (2) those who successfully completed a Small Grants for Institutions New to ATE project and subsequently submitted a proposal for a full ATE Project that was declined.
  • Moving-Up (Deadline: April 1, 2021) is focused on helping colleges that received funding in the Small Grants for Institutions New to ATE track to develop larger ATE Project proposals. 

In the Find A Grant Resource section, prospective grant recipients will find a range of excellent guides to help them navigate the world of NSF grant funding. In the Resource Library, there is a recent list of downloadable videos in their Coffee Break Webinar Series that are worth a look. Some of the videos are also found on the Mentor-Connect YouTube channel which is packed with information and tutorials about how to get started with NSF ATE grants.

Like the best Fortune 500 companies found in their mentoring programs, Mentor-Connect also has been instrumental in building mentoring culture and success in community college faculty. The trends are clear: Mentoring programs keep people engaged, productive, and resilient. 

The Mentor-Connect project is funded through the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program and formed out of Florence-Darlington Technical College’s South Carolina Advanced Technological Education Center of Excellence (SC ATE): National Resource Center in Florence, SC. DUE #1501183 & #1840856 Mentor-Connect: A Leadership Development and Outreach Initiative for ATE.

What Is Nanotechnology?

A Quick Definition of Nanotechnology and Nanoscience

Nanos is the Greek term for Dwarf. Walt Disney could have given the nanotechnology industry a kickstart back in 1937 if he only titled his classic movie Snow White and the Seven Nanos instead of Seven Dwarfs. Maybe not, but nano is definitely smaller than any dwarf you have ever seen on the big screen.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)scientist uses a Compound Semiconductor Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) System to grow semiconductor samples in the Semiconductor Growth lab at the Solar Energy Research Facility at NREL. MBE systems are considered a fundamental tool for developing nanotechnologies. Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash.

Nanotechnology is widely considered to be the field of applied science and technology where the control of matter on the molecular level occurs, smaller than 1 micrometer, but usually 1 to 100 nanometers (see How Big Is A Nanometer below), and the creation of devices within that size range. Although natural nanomaterials are all around us, nanotechnology is typically focused on and composed of human-made nanomaterials that occur from objects or processes created by people. 

Micro Nano Tech Education Center (MNT-EC) Center Manager, Billie Copley, simplifies the above definition: “Nanoscience,  generally speaking, is the observation, study and manipulation of matter on the atomic and molecular level. Nanotechnology uses the data gathered by nanoscience to improve or develop new materials and techniques.”

It is a multidisciplinary field, drawing from diverse areas of science and technology from applied physics to materials science; colloidal science to mechanical and electrical engineering, to name a few. These scientific areas are also leveraging a new generation of analytical tools such as the atomic force microscope (AFM), and the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to take nanotechnology even further. 

How Big Is A Nanometer, Actually?

Most sites try to define nanotechnology by sharing sizes that our brains can barely imagine. Nano means one-billionth — a billionth of one meter is one nanometer. We cannot see nano without the aid of a powerful microscope, like a super powerful microscope. The Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC) website launched last week with a post about Biomedical Research that our colleague, Dr. Neda Habibi, at Northwest Vista College, is providing students with research opportunities using microscopes that are powerful like the Hubble Space Telescope, if you could flip the Hubble into atomic mode.

To help people with size, nanotechnology sites often state that a human hair is 80,000 nm wide. Nanotechnology lives and works in sizes below 100 nm. To put that human hair scale in another context, “the comparative size of a nanometer to a meter is the same as that of a marble to the size of the earth” according to National Geographic

The magazine offers an encyclopedia, of sorts, and within it is the Nanotechnology section for grades 9 through 12-plus. They share some additional concepts that probably will not help you visualize how small a nanometer is, but may help you mentally wrestle with just how tiny it is:

  • Your fingernails grow about one nanometer every second.
  • When a seagull lands on an aircraft carrier, it sinks about one nanometer.
  • A man’s beard grows about a nanometer between the time he picks up a razor and lifts it to his face.

One of the best explorations attempting to define nanotechnology comes from WIRED magazine’s YouTube channel on October 8, 2020 (see below). They asked an expert nanotechnology researcher at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center (IBM Research), Dr. George S. Tulevski, to explain the concept of nanotechnology to 5 different people; a child, a teen, a college student, a grad student, and an expert. In this 24-minute video, viewers receive far more than definitions, but listen in on increasingly detailed and in-depth conversations of what nanotechnology is and can be in the future. 


Stay tuned as we will continue to update and provide resources at this “What Is Nanotechnology?” post.

Texas Undergraduate Students Gain Advanced Biomedical Research Experience

Most people have heard of the Hubble Space Telescope. Now flip that idea and direct it at the atomic level. In a new National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, principal investigator, Dr. Neda Habibi and students from Northwest Vista College in collaboration with the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) will have an opportunity to use advanced and powerful electron microscopes for undergraduate research projects.

Transmission electron microscope at Sandia National Laboratory’s (CINT) Center for Integrated Nanotechnology. Photographer Donica Payne. Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

The Biomedical Engineering (BME) project involves working with biomedical devices, cell culturing and microscopy techniques. The research projects will involve creating new types of anti-cancer drugs and tissue scaffolds for combating cancer and improving tissue regeneration. The set of techniques skills that students will receive will be cell culturing, electrospinning, working with advanced nano and micro characterization techniques such as FESEM, and TEM (see “Getting Technical” below).

Extending the success of an existing NSF Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant, the Alamo Institute for Materials Technology (AIM-TEC) at Northwest Vista College will receive additional funding to continue building workforce opportunities for Alamo college district students.

In the original NSF ATE grant, Northwest Vista College professors created AIM-TEC to create a self-sustaining and replicable regional workforce model that leverages local resources and partnerships to address the critical need by industry for quality technician education and training in advanced materials technology. This new BME project will place students in research projects at two main locations, Biomedical Engineering Department at UTSA and Tower Semiconductor.

The results of the research project will help students to locate in a workplace research facility or transition and continue with higher education into BME undergraduate programs. The project aims to recruit students from minority, unrepresented and female students to participate in the research experience. Thanks to participation within the Micro Nano Technology Education Center and mentorship from MNT-EC Center Director, Dr. Jared Ashcroft, this new project is giving students around the USA more opportunities to explore the micro nano technology industry.

Getting Technical:
FESEM: Field emission scanning electron microscopy can magnify at ranges of small (10x) up to massive (300,000x), with incredible depth of field. FESEM is a more advanced SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) that uses a focused beam of electrons to create an image. As the electrons interact, they produce a signal rich with information about the surface (topography) and makeup or composition of that sample. FESEM microscopes are capable of scanning down to 1.5 nanometers (nm), with less distortion and better resolution.

TEM: Transmission electron microscopy is another analysis technique using an electron beam to transmit through a specimen to form an image. Similar to FESEM, this method also captures how electrons interact, magnify it onto a screen, film, or increasingly with image sensors.

Hat tip to Vac Coat Ltd for its explanation of FE-SEM as well as to various Wikipedia pages across the history of microscopes.