The Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network was launched in 2005, with funding coming from several National Science Foundation research divisions along with the Division of Research in Learning in Formal and Informal Science Education (DRL). The decision to initiate such a collaborative endeavor signaled a recognition at the highest levels of federal science policy-making that the informal science education community, particularly science centers and museums, play a significant role in motivating students, supplementing K-12 education, developing innovative science education strategies, advancing the culture of science, and expanding public awareness and discourse on emerging sciences and technologies.
The investment was entrusted to a leadership team from the Museum of Science, Boston, together with the Exploratorium of San Francisco, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and about a dozen ISE and research organization partners. Since that time, many other organizations have become involved. [See http://nisenet.org]
The focus on nanotechnology for this large, unprecedented federal investment in the informal science education community represents both an unparalleled opportunity and an unanticipated challenge. Nanotechnology is not an easy domain for K-12 and university education, not to mention informal science education. It is a broad and complex field; literally and figuratively beyond “hands-on” reach or even normal microscopic view. It can’t be put in an exhibit case. It happens at a scale of matter bound up with unfamiliar forces, wave/particle duality, and quantum effects that cannot be easily simulated at the human scale. Nanotechnology is not a household word, a recognized subject in the science classroom, nor yet a viable marketing hook for a museum exhibit. It conveys little sense of civic urgency as compared with some other high-profile science and society issues like energy and global climate change, even though it may prove to produce some of the most compelling technological solutions to those very urgent problems.
It is perhaps because the scale and difficulty of the nanotech education and engagement challenge that NSF turned its attention to the science center and museum community. We are a community noted for our culture of creativity and innovation, and our expertise in engaging young and old alike. We specialize in “bridging the gap” between everyday experience and the worlds both revealed and created by science and technology. We enrich K-12 education with experiences of science and technology too current to make it into the textbooks and course curricula.
By undertaking this challenge, we agreed to do our best to discover what is most significant in nanoscale science and engineering from a human, cultural, and social standpoint as well as from an advancement-of-science-and-technology viewpoint. And, we agreed to help build the capacity of our field to help our diverse audiences engage thoughtfully in integrating this strange new nanoscale world safely and carefully into our lives. This guide offers a brief primer on nanotechnology – the science, it’s historical development and its societal implications – in the Resources section.
The NISE Network, though funded by the National Science Foundation, is considered an integral part of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a multi-million dollar strategic investment in basic and applied research, overseen by the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and administered through at least seven federal science funding agencies. The NNI is the nation’s first large scale cross-cutting federal science and technology initiative to include designated program funding to address each specific aspect of the traditional broader impacts mandate. Under the NNI, centers and networks have been established not just to advance nanoscience and technology research, nanomanufacturing and applications, but also to research the potential societal implications of continued development of nanotechnology in areas such as economics, jobs, health, K-12 education, teacher training, college and graduate education, workforce diversity, equity, environmental safety, defense, international trade, risk assessment, governance, and public discussion and deliberation.
The NISE Network partners are focusing primarily on developing educational activities that can be used to empower and inspire learning in a variety of settings and on fostering public awareness, discussion and deliberation of the broad range of science, technology, and society issues integral to the opening of these powerful new science and engineering frontiers. Network partners are also engaged in designing and testing new pedagogical approaches that may prove especially fruitful in this subject area, in collaboration with K-12 education researchers and practitioners. Overall, the NISE Network seeks to help build the capacity of the informal science education community to explore ways of integrating nanoscale science and engineering content and issues into their current portfolios, providing flexible and adaptable tools and resources and developing a catalog of vetted and tested materials, exhibits, programs, cart demonstrations, media, science theater pieces, forum models, tools for evaluation, and professional development. The NISE Network website, www.nisenet.org, serves as a portal to these elements and to the community of participants.