New Home of the UVA Virtual Lab:
We Can Figure This Out.org
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You seem to have already asked: Who is this person? And why should I listen to him/her?
The quick answer is: My name is John C. Bean. I hold degrees through Ph.D. in Applied Physics (from Caltech and Stanford). For 20+ years I was a scientist at Bell Laboratories. For another 20+ years, I was a professor at the University of Virginia (for more detail see "My Background" - below).
Over those years, I learned and taught about microtechnology, nanoscience and sustainable energy. And the most important single lesson I learned was that:
One must ALWAYS question!
Particularly in these fields. Why? First, because these are not narrow specialized subjects. Instead, they span physics, chemistry, biology, plus the full range of engineering, plus even economics, sociology and political science. You will not master them by viewing a single documentary, or even taking one whole class. Indeed, I doubt that any one individual could master any of these fields in their entirety. As I warned my students: "Anyone claiming to be an expert on this whole field is either a fool or a fraud." Which should probably be amended to add "or a blogger, or online science reporter" - because, sadly, neither generally put enough time into researching and deeply understanding their subjects.
My point? When you read or hear reports about these fields, you can be almost certain that that information is incomplete, perhaps critically so. Which means that you must guard against jumping to premature conclusions and instead question . . . and dig deeper!
Beyond that, with the breadth of these fields, and the myriad ways in which they may affect us, they will surely transform the 21st century. Which means that both individuals and businesses have huge vested interests in steering these fields through public opinion. And their efforts make it even harder to get clear, complete, objective, and balanced information. So this again highlights the critical need to question and dig deeper.
However, while questioning and digging are essential, answers are a heck of a lot more satisfying!
But here I have some good news: My students and I learned that you really don't have to rely on self-proclaimed experts, instead, we can figure this out!
Yes: If you start by developing a well-thought-out set of questions, add a good dose high-school-level science, augment it with some back-of-the-envelope calculation, you will be astounded at how often you can develop much more complete and plausible answers (and what you will learn in getting to that point!).
And that's why I named this website:
We Can Figure This Out.org
With its icon proclaiming: "Warning - Questions Ahead!"
Development of this Website / Acknowledgements:
I began my academic career teaching about the semiconductor devices that I had researched at Bell Labs. But I soon found that many students struggled with my conventional, math-based, lessons. In my "mind's eye," real-life experience allowed me to see how math described these microscopic, three-dimensional, ever-changing devices (including even their completely invisible electric fields). But in my classroom, math plus static PowerPoint and blackboard images did not allow many students to make a similar connection.
Frustrated, I began to explore computer animation techniques and proposed to the National Science Foundation (NSF / ) the creation of an online "Virtual Lab" that would use animation, calling upon intuitive high-school-level science, to provide a "gateway" into microelectronics and its related science and applications.
In 1999 NSF provided a substantial grant under their Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program. Thus was born the "UVA Virtual Lab" (which has now become the Virtual Lab component of this new WeCanFigureThisOut.org website).
The Virtual Lab‘s approach can be seen in this How Semiconductors and Transistors Work webpage (which, alone, has now been viewed by over one million visitors). The impact of the website grew to the point that the international (almost half million member) Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) awarded me their 2009 Undergraduate Teaching Medal "for providing opportunities to both undergraduate and pre-college students for discovery through both laboratory projects and virtual experiments on the world wide web."
A few years later, NSF‘s Nanoscience Undergraduate Education (NUE) program challenged academics to develop a new curriculum introducing early undergraduates to this rapidly emerging field. In response, I led a University of Virginia (UVA / ) team proposing a "Hands on Introduction to Nanoscience" that would incorporate new miniaturized scanning tunneling and atomic force microscopes (STMs / AFMs). These instruments would allow freshmen to do something that the overwhelming majority of career scientists never get a chance to do: see individual atoms.
This idea, coupled with my commitment to web post all materials developed for the class (including new Virtual Lab animations explaining the inner working of these STMs and AFMs) won a 2007 NUE grant. I spent those funds entirely on instrumentation for the class at UVA. UVA, in turn, supplied additional funds to expand those labs, and to both maintain and supply them for the seventeen times I taught the class. The online content that I created for that class is now the Nanoscience component of WeCanFigureThisOut.org.
Although I have never worked directly in the energy field, my Bell Labs research involved "optoelectronic" telecommunication devices that are based on the same physics and materials as photovoltaic solar cells (PV cells). This brought me into frequent contact with PV researchers, including two who went on to found major U.S. solar energy companies.
But I then became more and more aware of the disconnect between these colleagues‘s optimism and the slow/minor real-world impact of solar energy. Enlightenment came when I read David J.C. MacKay‘s extraordinary book Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air. MacKay hammered on the message that energy is all about SYSTEMS and that a single technology (such as PV solar) can be virtually useless if it does not fit into such a system (supporting and supported by that system‘s other technologies, and consistent with their economic and sociopolitical ground rules).
That epiphany led me into almost ten years of personal investigation into energy systems which, in 2014, evolved into my new UVA class about Sustainable Energy Systems. Predictably, this class build upon my Virtual Lab and Hands on Introduction to Nanoscience class experience by again trying to provide undergraduates of all backgrounds and majors with a "gateway" into this critical field. That class‘s materials make up the Sustainable Energy component of WeCanFigureThisOut.org. (Note, however, that this is a component for which I still plan major further development and expansion)
For once, NSF funding was not involved in this class‘s creation. But Computer Science professor Aaron Bloomfield and I later hatched the idea of developing an online sustainable energy game/simulation that would allow students (and members of the general public) to try their hand at constructing a realistic, nation-spanning, energy system. For this idea we received a smallish NSF Research Initiation Grant in Engineering Education (RIGEE) that has allowed us to develop a prototype of this game/simulation. With a little bit of luck (and additional funding) this educational tool might eventually become the fourth component of WeCanFigureThisOut.org
Since 2005 visitors to these WCFTO websites have viewed: 14,343,370 webpages & documents.
I grew up in what was then developing into California‘s "Silicon Valley" (an interesting experience that included a junior high school friendship with a guy we nicknamed Woz).
I went south to earn my B.S. degree at Caltech in 1972. I then came back north to Stanford were I earned my M.S. in 1974 and Ph.D. in early 1976. My Stanford thesis was on early electronic processing of a material, CdTe, that has only recently gained traction in the field of solar energy. All of my degrees were in Applied Physics.
I then moved across the country to join the Physical Sciences Research Division of Bell Labs, in Murray Hill NJ. There I was Member of Technical Staff, Distinguished Member of Technical Staff, and later Head of the Materials Science Research Department. In my lab I developed a technique called "Silicon Molecular Beam Epitaxy" and used it to do the pioneering research on the growth, properties and applications of GeSi, a material that is now used throughout the microelectronics industry. For that work I was named as a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in 1991.
I then left industry in early 1997 to join the faculty of the University of Virginia as the "J.M. Money Professor of Engineering & Applied Science." There I continued my research while expanding my educational efforts (as detailed in the preceding section).
For my cumulative body of research (link), in 2003 the publishers of Science Citation Index (the precursor of Google Scholar) named me to their list of Highly Cited Researchers ("250 preeminent individual researchers in each of 21 subject categories who have demonstrated great influence in their field as measured by citations to their work").
At the University of Virginia, my educational work was recognized by an "All University Teaching Award" (2004), induction as an inaugural member of their "Academy of Teaching" (2011), and the Hartfield Jefferson Scholars Foundation Teaching Prize (2015).
Sponsorship / Possible Conflicts of Interest:
This is an entirely non-sponsored, non-commercial website. I derive no income, nor any other form of compensation from this website (nor do any family members or associates).
Over the now almost twenty-year long effort to develop this website, the only related compensation I have received was through my salary as a professor at the University of Virginia, or via summer salary support included in certain of the National Science Foundation grants described above.
I do not now, nor have I ever held investments in nanotechnology or energy companies (although it is possible that such investments were included within the portfolios of savings or retirement funds I have held).
Copyright: John C. Bean