Engineers help turn science into interactive exhibits
part of a new National Science Foundation-funded network, UW-Madison
engineering faculty, staff and students will work with some of the nation’s
top science museums to create hands-on exhibits about technology so
small that even the tiniest human fingers can’t touch it.
The Museum of Science, Boston, the Science Museum
of Minnesota, and the Exploratorium, San Francisco, are leading the
$20 million Nanoscale Informal Science Education (NISE) Network, which
aims to develop innovative materials and vehicles for increasing Americans’
knowledge about and understanding of nanotechnology.
It’s science at the scale of atoms and
molecules, where researchers measure devices and materials in billionths
of a meter and view their work through some of the most powerful microscopes
Translating that scientific research into something
museum visitors can see, touch, do—and comprehend—is no
small feat, says Associate Professor Wendy
Crone, director of education and outreach for the university’s
Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) on Nanostructured
Materials and Interfaces.
“We’re learning a lot about what
works and what doesn’t, how to talk to general audiences about
these topics and what kinds of interactives—things you can do
with your hands—that will help people to understand the nanoscale,”
she says. “Nano is so small, so you have to work with analogies.”
In November of 2004, Crone and her staff and
students unveiled the Nanoworld Discovery Center, an interactive public
exhibit about nanotechnology that resides on the UW-Madison campus in
the Engineering Centers Building. The exhibit was the result of a partnership
between MRSEC and Discovery World Museum, Milwaukee.
In one aspect of the exhibit, visitors can relate
the absolutely tiny scale of nanotechnology to their own lives. “In
the time it takes you to read this sentence,” the exhibit reads,
“your fingernail will have grown one nanometer.”
Among the exhibit’s features is a segment
about ferrofluids, which are tiny magnetic particles covered by a surfactant.
Visitors can use magnets to manipulate these particles that flow like
liquid; in real life, ferrofluids damp vibrations and eliminate excess
energy in high-end stereo speakers and are useful as liquid O-rings
in situations where the friction generated by standard rubber rings
is an issue.
Explorers also can interact with life-sized
traffic lights to compare incandescent bulbs to light-emitting diodes
to learn how nano-materials can help conserve energy and reduce traffic-light
maintenance. In addition, aspects of the exhibit highlight other applications
of nanotechnology, including stain-resistant clothing, and the tools
that scientists use to work on this small scale.
Building on these ideas and topics from MRSEC
research, Crone’s group will work most closely with the Science
Museum of Minnesota, which under the NSF grant will lead the Center
for Exhibit and Program Production and Dissemination. “Each museum
will draw on the technical expertise available in various partner institutions,”
she says. “Our expertise is providing publicly accessible science
for museum exhibits.”