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Revolutionizing nanoscience with nanoHUB

Take a quick look at how hundreds of thousands of people around the world interact online at nanoHUB.org in the field of nanotechnology. NanoHUB offers hundreds of simulation and modeling tools, thousands of seminars, and various other ways for people to share information and collaborate online. NanoHUB is powered by the award-winning HUBzero cyberinfrastructure platform. Video courtesy nanoHUB.org.

In the last 12 months more than 13,000 people have run simulations and 309,000 have made use of tutorials, lectures, or seminars at nanoHUB.org, a science and engineering gateway made up of community-contributed resources. The gateway is geared toward educational applications, professional networking, and interactive simulation tools for nanotechnology. “We are redefining research and learning in the nano-scale for engineering and science,” says Gerhard Klimeck, director of nanoHUB and the Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN) at Purdue University in Indiana, US.

Starting in 1998 with about 1,000 users, NanoHUB has provided on-demand access to nanoscience and simulation software, and to a variety of other services and tools. Shortly after making usability adaptations and switching to interactive tools, they saw their number of users climb. In turn, the introduction of lectures to support the tools and nanoscience caused growth to skyrocket. “The number of tutorial and lecture users shot up by a factor of 20 over simulation users,” notes Klimeck.

Klimeck, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue, believes nanoHUB and science gateways have truly transformed research and education. “To me this is the essence of a research university, but now this is a global university. It is not just Purdue, or the people in my group, or the people that run nanoHUB, it's really more than 1,000 content contributors and 380 tool developers, most of whom are volunteers that have contributed to the hundreds of tools.”

“We are connecting research, education, and industry, and enabling collaboration that is providing a global impact,” Klimeck says. “When we started doing this ten years ago, there were really some foundational questions about whether this was even possible coming from stakeholders – developers, users, and infrastructure staff – who each have starkly different sets of concerns.”

Common framework tools within nanoHUB have created a developer network of sorts, linking together developers who are changing, modifying, and evolving code and tools. “We now have over 1,400 new versions of more than 300 tools,” Klimeck notes. “This is product innovation that is continually renewing. The cool thing is that people from the outside with whom we have no formal relationship start to contribute.”

NanoHUB-U: Short courses accessible to students in any branch of science or engineering, with topics distilled into short lectures with quizzes, homework, and practice exams. Image courtesy nanoHUB.org.

Some would argue that incentives are low for faculty members to engage in and support science gateways. Klimeck believes that is changing, however, and cites examples where efforts have reaped great rewards. “A former student of mine published eight tools on nanoHUB, serving over 6,000 people with his tools. He then joined a university as a professor and introduced nanoHUB. Use of the gateway from that university skyrocketed; he used nanoHUB in existing classes, created new classes, and infused it in his research.” Ultimately, the professor’s department head associates his two-year rise to tenure with the notoriety and innovation he gained through nanoHUB.

On nanoHUB, there are no formally structured courses like massive open online courses (MOOCs), but there are over 90 complete contributed courses. “We are working on a new concept of nanoHUB-U where we do built-in certifications. There is a web 2.0 aspect, so you can rank content, write reviews, and contribute in that way if you like. There is also a nano-currency, and you can earn points and spend points.”

So far, Klimeck estimates that nanoHUB has been cited over 1,000 times in research, with 77% of authors coming from outside the nanoHUB community. “A significant percentage of the papers include experimental data and have experimentalists as authors, so the myth that experimentalists wouldn’t touch a theoretical toolset is busted. We began to study the secondary citations of those 1,000 papers, and over the years the nanoHUB h-index has grown from 27 to 52. That's not bad after 10 years of being in the business. Not only can you enable research, it's good research.”

In February, the US National Science Foundation awarded $14.5 million to expand the Purdue-led science and engineering gateway."Our long-term vision for nanoHUB is as an online nano-society that researchers, practitioners, educators and students depend on daily," says Klimeck. "We are excited about how this tool has extended into professional practice as a computational resource for a multidisciplinary culture of innovation.”

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