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Big collaboration links learners to science on a tiny scale

Nanotechnology exhibit

Visitors to the Engineering Centers Building can learn about nanotechnology via this exhibit, thanks to a collaboration between Materials Research Science and Engineering Center interns and Discovery World Museum, Milwaukee. (large image)

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This story is also featured on the Wisconsin Technology Network.


In the classroom, students learn science at the behest of teachers who follow curriculum-driven lesson plans, allowing carefully cultivated opportunities for individual exploration.

But Discovery World Museum, Milwaukee, is about "not school," or the knowledge visitors pursue on their own time, says Paul Krajniak, the museum's executive director. He says kids don't just want to learn cool science — they want to be involved in it. "When Discovery World started, everything had to be interactive," he says. "Now they want to meet the pros. They want to know what a person knows. They want to do the real thing."

One vehicle for making that connection happen is the museum's ongoing collaboration with the National Science Foundation-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), based in the College of Engineering. This partnership has enabled Discovery World to link visitors of all ages with information and experts in the cutting-edge field of nanotechnology.

The field involves materials so small they are measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter, and can't be seen with optical microscopes. At this scale, a human hair is gargantuan, measuring a whopping 50,000 nanometers in diameter.

In the past, UW-Madison students, through a MRSEC program called Internships in Public Science Education (IPSE), developed classroom activities about nanotechnology and led hands-on tabletop demonstrations at Discovery World. But a new initiative will enable MRSEC and the museum to share the wonders of this tiny world via a permanent exhibit.

Tapping MRSEC scientific resources, Discovery World experts in exhibit design, and their own creativity, the students are developing ideas for an effective, interactive and informative exhibit about nanotechnology. Later, they will create exhibit prototypes and test them. The final product will be part of the museum's new Milwaukee lakefront location, scheduled to open in late 2005.

"This collaboration is going to give UW-Madison research on nanotechnology a presence in Milwaukee at the newest museum we're going to create," says Krajniak, adding that Discovery World's newest incarnation will have a broader focus. "We're going to deal with both the biosphere and the technosphere and bring them together," he says. "It'll really be an interesting combination of elements. And MRSEC will be a big part of that."

Likewise, with the help of a grant from the university's Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, a small part of Discovery World will reside at UW-Madison in the Engineering Centers Building: The Nanoworld Discovery Center, which officially opened in December 2004, is a collapsible exhibit the MRSEC students will use to educate people both on campus and from the community about nanotechnology. "It was an opportunity for both us and Discovery World to start seeing how you create exhibits on nanotechnology, because it's a really challenging topic," says Greta Zenner, MRSEC science editor who has worked with the IPSE students. "If you can't see something, how do you create exhibits on it?"

The collaboration builds on the resources of each partner and benefits everyone, says Engineering Physics Associate Professor Wendy Crone, who leads MRSEC outreach efforts. "Discovery World has provided expertise in public science education and opportunities to test materials with a live audience, while MRSEC has offered its facilities and expertise on nanotechnology research and education," she says. "This strategy has proven effective for providing valuable professional development experiences for all involved and for bringing cutting-edge science and its societal implications to the public."