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Converting nanotechnology cash into public engagement

The U.S. NSF has a program in Nanoscale Informal Science Education, awarding $20 million over five years to a network of science museums and related institutions. This is the largest single award NSF has ever given to science museums.

One of the main three museums getting the award is the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and Foresight advisor John Gilmore (also an Exploratorium member) brings our attention to what they’re doing with the cash. There seem to be three main thrusts:

1. Three weekends of molecular model building, including a gold crystal, a carbon nanotube, and a carbon nanotube FET. The photos are kind of fun, and quite a few “Nanoscape Assemblers” participated, probably mostly kids.

2. A three-hour lecture/discussion event — including a free dinner! — called a Forum: “The Forum starts with lectures from experts in the field; attendees then break into small groups to discuss approaches to specific issues in nanotechnology. Each group is led by a trained, neutral moderator who guides the discussion. Forums provide a venue where citizens can work together to reason through social problems.”

3. Two artworks, one in which participants “move” giant buckyballs on a screen, and the other that interprets music into nano-reminiscent graphics.

So, are U.S. taxpayers getting our money’s worth? The model building looks fun and educational for young kids. The lecture/discussion appeared to treat nanotechnology as a “social problem” (?). The artworks might attract the interest of young people, but the one that interprets music into nano-like graphics — which are completely divorced from physical reality as far as I can tell — seems a bit dubious in terms of educational value. But maybe I’m being overly skeptical on that! —Christine

6 Responses to “Converting nanotechnology cash into public engagement”

  1. brian Says:

    social problem seems kind of odd, but I don’t recall a commonly used phrase for government funded research??? (other than “boondoggle”, heh). It’s definitely not a public good, but perhaps someone should coin ‘public opportunity’ to address research opportunities that have public benefits.

  2. Tom Rockwell Says:

    It is important to know that the Exploratorium is one of 13 institutions (science centers, research groups and professional societies) that form the core of a national network receiving the $20 million over 5 years. What was on display this summer was a small portion of the network’s first year of experimental work.

    The Network model we’ve adopted involves two years of rapid prototyping of exhibits, pedagogy, and the network itself, followed by three years of final production and wider distribution. Both at the Exploratorium and in the network more broadly, we embrace a philosophy of “learning by doing” in which prototypes are created early on in the project and evaluated for their appeal and educational impact. For more information about the Network see

    Given the exploratory nature of the phase of work we’re in, we welcome any thoughts about what should be taught in an informal setting about nanoscale science and technology.

    Tom Rockwell

    Director, Center for Public Exhibition and Public Programs, Exploratorium
    Co- Principal Investigator, NISEnet

  3. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi Tom — Thanks for taking the time to comment. Everyone I know loves the Exploratorium, so it’s great to see the museum getting involved in nanotechnology.

    It’s hard to make technical topics accessible to the general public — I’m sure you struggle with this challenge every day, as we do at Foresight.

    Let us know if we can be of assistance. We’re just down the road in Menlo Park. There are some fun animations available that might help.

    Best wishes,

  4. Says:

    There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.

  5. Says:

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