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NanoDays 2008: Nano Coast to Coast

By Robin Marks, Exploratorium

As the first annual NanoDays approached, a lot of folks in the NISE Network were getting a little nervous. "Are visitors even going to pay attention?" "What if my forum/presentation/program just leaves them more confused?" It isn't easy to get people hooked on something they can't see. But throughout North America, over 100 science centers, research institutions, universities, libraries, and other organizations pulled it off. NanoDays inspired people across the network to experiment with ways of engaging audiences in the smallest of science. Tens of thousands of visitors got a taste of the tiny, and many new institutional relationships were forged.

Beyond buckyballs: A few examples

Many participating NISE partners went above and beyond the call of their NanoDays kits. Staff from Sciencenter in Ithaca collaborated with Cornell University to give 1,200 visitors an inside view of Cornell's NanoScale Facility. Attendees could preregister for workshops, attend lectures, explore 30 activity stations, and don bunny suits for a tour of the nanofabrication clean room. Sciencenter has an ongoing relationship with Cornell, which offered a sizable space for the event and provided volunteer scientists to facilitate the 30 activity stations. "It was amazing the support we got from Cornell to make this happen," says Sciencenter's Rae Ostman. "You can't just show up any day and say 'Can I go into the clean room?'" On the flip side, Sciencenter staff brought their expertise with audiences and informal education to the coordination of activities and lectures.

Further east, NanoDias at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) at Humacao incorporated both science and art, bringing visitors into the labs to make nanofibers and then into an art gallery to vote for their favorite nanoart. For the preschool set, there was even a nano short story reading. The humanities faculty were delighted to be included, and, as UPR professor Idalia Ramos says, "It sends an important message to students that the work we do in materials science is multidisciplinary. You can be good at science and at art, and there are scientists making artworks." On the west coast, the Exploratorium took a dramatic approach, staging a play called "Consent," in which two daughters struggle with decisions about nano-medical care for their ailing father. The play, written by Eugenie Chan and previously performed at the third annual NISE Net conference, was followed by a 15-minute "Nano 101"-type presentation by researcher Nicola Farrelis from COINS.
The play was simply staged, with just lighting and chairs, no props. Research associate Veronica Garcia-Luis worked with Farrelis to develop his presentation, which was tied to the play and was approachable for the audience. The evaluation form indicated that a good number of visitors were thinking about the impact nano could have on their lives. "I would absolutely do it again," says Garcia-Luis. "The societal implications are the hook. They make people say 'What do I need to think about as a citizen?' " In the nation's capitol, staffers working for citizen-elected officials got a dose of nano at the Congressional Office Building. NISE Net partner organizations put on a two-hour showcase highlighting the network's activities and media products. The following day, the showcase moved to the atrium of NSF's building in Arlington, VA. About 50 people attended each day. "It was an important event for us to do," says Margaret Glass, ASTC's legislative liason. "It allowed us to present a variety of things that people on the Hill didn't know much about." The National Nanotechnology Initiative is still being amended, she points out. "There is a legislative interest in nanoscience," Glass notes. "There's a keen awareness of US technology falling behind."

The NISE kit provides some lessons about teaching

For some organizations, the NanoDays kits lent insight into teaching nano. The University of New Hampshire held their fourth annual K-12 Nanotechnology Teacher Conference on April 9, and used the kit in one of their workshops. Lisa Regalla from the Museum of Science in Boston came and spotlighted the demos and hands-on activities for the teachers. "Each year we get new teachers who don't know anything about nano, or have heard about it and want to know how to include it in a curriculum," says conference organizer Sue Greenberg. "Having simple demonstrations laid out encourages teachers to try them and use them with their students." At Arizona State University, undergrads familiar with nano got some experience trying to teach it to a relaxed crowd at the Tempe Art Fair. Postdocs in the Center for Nanotechnology and Society (CNS) trained undergrads to facilitate the kit's hands-on activities. explaining that students could tie nano to things like glassblowing, connecting the art fair to the subject matter. "It had quite an impact on the students," says CNS postdoc Ira Bennett. "They learned a lot about how to describe science to the public."

Nano makes new friends

Many organizations said NanoDays helped them initiate or strengthen relationships with other institutions."The success of NanoDays opened many doors for us," says Dr. Messaoud Bahoura, a professor at Norfolk State University (NSU) in Virginia, which collaborated with the Children's Museum of Virginia. Their activities included a scavenger hunt and buckyball giveaways. As a result of their NanoDays collaboration, NSU is now partnered with the museum on a proposal in which they use the NISE Net NanoDays kits for outreach to minority students and community centers. The effort to find volunteers for NanoDays brought a lot of institutions in contact with local high schools or other groups with which they rarely work. Discovery Science Place in Tyler, TX, for example, forged a partnership with Texas College to recruit student monitors for activity stations. At the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, NM, science educators Liz Martineau and Gordon McDonough took a unique approach to recruiting volunteers: they culled together a set of "nanofacts," and sent out one each day to staff at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The trivia tidbits raised interest among LANL staffers and, over time, brought in plenty of volunteers. Bradbury used the NISE Net kit, but also developed their own activities. Some of them were so successful that staff decided to leave them on the floor for a couple of months. Bradbury and several other museums also created events that focused specifically on younger students. Bradbury held a teens-only evening event, partnering with the local Cafe Scientifique. The Miami Science Museum used NISE Net materials during Nano Career Day, reaching students from local schools and at-risk youth programs. The Lafayette Natural History Museum in Lafayette, LA, incorporated nano into its Spring Break Kids Camp. Overall, the pre-NanoDays jitters gave way to successes that went beyond what many NISE Net partners had anticipated. One lesson learned from NanoDays is that despite the complexities of the science, the public is clearly interested in learning about nanotechnology. And, utilizing a plethora of creative ways to engage their interest, the NISE Network appears to be on the right track.