An ExLENT Opportunity: New Program to Provide Training for Sensor Science and Technology Careers

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By Tom Linder
Professor Rong Wang in a laboratory setting

Sensor technology is among the fastest-growing modern technologies that impacts every industrial sector. The United States is making a concerted effort—as shown with the recently passed CHIPS and Science Act—to advance U.S. global leadership in the technologies of the future.

A new grant from the National Science Foundation’s Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies (ExLENT) program will ensure that Illinois Institute of Technology is on the forefront of that innovation. The NSF awarded Illinois Tech more than $875,000 to create a nine-credit certificate program—Sensor Technology for Experiential Learning—to prepare underrepresented groups, with a particular emphasis on veterans, to join industry across healthcare, defense, space, environmental control, among others, through mentorship and hands-on training in sensor science and technology. Illinois Tech is among the 27 teams at U.S. institutions of higher education who received the NSF’s first ExLENT investment “to expand practical learning opportunities and grow talent nationwide.”

“We will provide experiential opportunities and training for traditional and non-traditional adult learners,” says Illinois Tech Professor of Chemistry Rong Wang, the project’s principal investigator. “Veterans are unique. They are among the first to adopt new technologies as they have used some of the most sophisticated technologies (advanced defense equipment) in the world. However, military experience and training are frequently not the perfect match of skills needed to perform the jobs today.”

Wang continues, “In coming back home to reconnect with civilian life, veterans actively look for reskilling opportunities. Our certificate program will offer the training which helps close the gap for a well-paid job. The program will prepare the participants to establish the technical capability in combined areas of advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, environmental control, semiconductor and microelectronics—the technical areas the country is promoting. With the NSF grant support of Illinois Tech’s ExLENT program, veterans are offered a career path to successfully transition into civilian life while contributing to a highly demanded workforce to address the country’s immediate needs.”

The certificate program is designed to complement a student’s chosen degree path or a veteran’s experience with specific knowledge of sensor technology that they can apply to their area of expertise, whether it’s chemistry, physics, biology, food science, computer science, biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, information technology, or any number of various other fields.

“For a chemist, knowing chemistry alone is not enough anymore,” says Wang. “For example, for a chemist to develop a drug, he/she not only needs to know how to synthesize and characterize the chemical entity, but also needs to know how to optimize the drug’s usage for treatment and minimize side effects. Targeted drug delivery requires knowledge of the target site, best delivery method, dose and timing in connection with dynamic changes of individual patient’s disease status, and health conditions to achieve personalized treatment. These are rooted in technologies of developing sensor materials, sensing modelities, data and signal processing of in-situ, in-place measurements.”

While Wang is the principal investigator for the grant, the interdisciplinary nature of the program involves investigators and fellow Illinois Tech faculty members, including Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Erdal Oruklu, Professor of Psychology Eun-Jeong Lee, and Department of Chemistry Chair Yuanbing Mao.

The Illinois Tech ExLENT program will consist of three courses meant to be completed in eight to 12 months. The first is a lecture course, which is followed by a project course where the student is mentored by a member of faculty in their field and an industrial partner. The third course is an internship at one of the partner companies. So far, six local companies have partnered with the program, and Wang anticipates the list of industrial partners to grow even more as the ExLENT program continues to develop.

“Because of the connections with the International Center for Sensor Science and Engineering, I’m confident we can expand it,” says Wang, who serves as the center’s director. “Right now it’s six companies. I would expect us to at least double that.”

Though the program is open to all students, the tuition covered by the grant will only be available to veterans. Wang hopes the program’s initial success (the grant funds the ExLENT program through 2026) will ultimately lead to the industrial partners paying for students’ internships. She anticipates approximately 10 students per year earning certificates.