Partnerships in nano education and outreach

What is intriguing to me is how you create partnerships with scientists – this is an overarching legacy of NISE. Nanoscience may come and go. The work we are doing to formalize relationships with scientists and communicate their work to the public is very important and will inform the museum for years to come.

– Anonymous response to Inverness Research Associate’s “mid-term survey

A different kind of capacity-building effort is also a central focus of the NISE Network, and that is the fostering of effective partnerships between researchers, research centers and organizations, and their counterparts in the informal science education field.

Because of the scale of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, most major universities have some kind of federal funding for research in this area. Probably 90% of science museums in this country could find a university pursuing nano research within some reasonable driving distance. (All the NNI research programs and their locations are discoverable via the portal and the NISE Network maintains a web page with partnering resources at And of course the NISE Net catalog provides resources the partners can use to kick-start their first efforts, with a minimum investment of their time and resources, at Nano research centers that partner with local science museums also get the added benefit that any educational resources they produce through their local partnership efforts can be disseminated nationally throughout the Network, increasing the impact of their efforts.

The yearly NanoDays celebration can also serve as a catalyst, lowering “the energy requirement” for activating a new partnership between museum and research center partners, or serving as a cautious testing of the waters. NanoDays is a week (usually at the end of March/beginning of April) of coordinated education outreach activities at research centers and informal science education organizations around the nation

Nanoscale research is also rich in centers and networks, and, as discussed in Section One, they provide exceptional opportunities for sustainable, long-term educational outreach partnerships. Beginning in 2001, NSF began funding five-year collaborative Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers (NSECs) for between two and three million a year, and added on new five-year centers over the next several years. All these NSECs were eligible for a five-year renewal, giving them 10 years of uninterrupted funding. This longer timeline allowed the NSECs to develop novel collaborations and research programs that could delve further and deeper into riskier and possibly more rewarding research ventures, taking advantage of sophisticated equipment and facilities. The first “class” of NSECs, funded in 2001, sunset in 2011. Many of their investigators seek to carry on successful research collaborations beyond this date through new center program funding. NSF also funds large MRSECs, or Materials Science and Engineering Research Centers, some of which focus on nanoscale materials science and engineering. These are funded for six years at a time, are indefinitely renewable, and are more likely to be based at a single university.

Other federal science agencies besides NSF also use the nano research center funding model. These include the National Cancer Institute’s Centers for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (NCI CCNE) and the Department of Energy’s Nanoscale Science Research Centers (NSRC). These large research centers operate alongside, and sometimes in partnership with smaller research programs funding only a single or small group of researchers, and alongside other programs targeted primarily at improving undergraduate and graduate education in nanoscale science and engineering. All of these federally-funded nanoscale science and engineering centers are included in the list at

Many research centers as well as their individual participants are highly motivated to contribute in-kind services and expertise to science museums and other education organizations doing outreach in their area of expertise. These resources, together with those available through the NISE Network and other nano education developers can really give a boost to a science museum interested in providing its audiences exposure to these new areas of research and already equipped with the funding and staff time to invest in the collaboration. As discussed in Section Two, however, it is NSF-funded centers and networks that are more likely to consider providing more than simply in-kind support to science museum partners, in the form of sub-awards to help with staff time, materials, and events. The following chapter provides brief illustrations of just a few of these more substantial partnerships.

Samples of research center – science museum partnerships in nanoscale informal science education

Here are a few examples of funded partnership collaborations between nanoscale science and engineering research centers and science museums that have produced sustained and lasting learning experiences. Contact information for the science museum liaisons is provided by their permission so that interested readers can find out more.

Sciencenter of Ithaca, NY and the Cornell University Nanobiotechnology Center (2000-2010) Researchers at Cornell invited the Ithaca Sciencenter to participate in their proposal for this five-year NSF Science & Technology Center (STC) in 2000. The sub-award supported the Sciencenter and a private exhibit development firm in their collaboration to produce It’s a Nano World, a traveling exhibition for children that has reached many thousands of people in its tour around the country and its residency at the Epcot Center in Florida. A second exhibit proposed by Cornell, Too Small Too See, received direct NSF ISE funding with a sub-award to the Sciencenter and its exhibit development firm partner. This exhibit also played at Epcot, and is touring the country. For more information, contact Rae Ostman,

The Franklin Institute and the Penn State Center for Nanoscale Science (2000-2014)
Researchers at Penn State invited The Franklin Institute to join their proposal for this six-year NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Research Center in 2000. The sub-award to TFI funded the development of hands-on museum demos, reproduction of demo kits, and training of staff from 20 different science museums in using the kits. The 2008 6-year renewal sub-award adds a partnership with a magnet high school. For more information, contact Jayatri Das, email

Ontario Science Center and the Materials Research Society (2000-2005)
The Materials Research Society won funding from the National Science Foundation ISE program in 2000 and from corporate sponsors, and partnered with the Ontario Science Center to produce Strange Matter, a large traveling exhibit on materials science, touring the country since 2004. For more information, contact Richard Souza,

Museum of Science, Boston and the Harvard-MIT-UCSB-MOS Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center and the NSF NSEC Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing at Northeastern University, University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and the University of New Hampshire. (2001-2014) Researchers at Harvard invited the Museum of Science to participate in their proposal for an NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center in 2001 and researchers at Northeastern invited MOS to participate in their NSEC proposal in 2004. Each sub-award supports a full-time education associate at the Museum and provides additional support for the development, delivery, and evaluation of multiple programs, exhibits, media, professional development and science communication workshops. These NSF NSECs were both renewed, along with the partnership sub-awards, and each will span the full ten years. For more information, contact Carol Lynn Alpert at

Lawrence Hall of Science and the Center of Integrated Nanomechanical Systems at University of California – Berkeley (2002-2007)
The Lawrence Hall of Science won direct NSF ISE funding in 2002 to build a nanotech exhibit and website nanoZone, in partnership with the Center of Integrated Nanomechanical Systems at the University of California – Berkeley. The proposed partnership with the research center was a key element in LHS’s NSF proposal, “Windows on Research: Focus on Nanotechnology.” The partners produced a permanent exhibit for middle-school age children with updateable media and programs. For more information, contact Marco Molinaro, or Darryl Porcello,

Discovery Center Museum, Rockford, Illinois and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (2006-2011)
The Discovery Center Museum received an IMLS Museums for America grant in 2006 in order to bring nano to their community, and they reached out to partner with the UW-Madison NSEC, which has contributed considerable staff time and materials. These partners collaborate on small exhibits, after-school programs, and teacher workshops, and they are building a set of versatile library kiosks on nanotechnology, including a tactile exploration of nanoscale forms for the sight-impaired. For more information, contact Michael Rathbun,

These models provide examples of partnership arrangements and activities, but they are by no means the limits of what can be imagined and produced. Each ISE institution has different needs, different audiences, different assets, and different regional, cultural, and historical contexts. Each researcher and research center brings different talents, perspectives, tools, and research domains to the table. The goal is to be creative, flexible, willing to experiment and honestly assess, and committed to learning and improving on all practices.

[Describe your successful partnership case study in the Comment/Discuss area.]


The annual NanoDays event, launched by the NISE Net in 2008, has become a kind of mixer and a launch pad for partnerships between research centers and science museums. Working together for the first time, the science museum staff and the local university researchers and education outreach folks find that their respective goals match and their resources complement each other extraordinarily well. The Nano Days kit the NISE Net provides a complete in-the-box seed assortment around which can crystallize ideas for new activities leveraging local resources. It’s provides a “low barrier to entry,” and it’s fun. With one or two NanoDays collaborations behind them, some partners have developed funding proposals for more substantive and sustained work.

Be Creative; Explore the Possibilities; Let them Evolve

All partnerships mature. Some discover whole new areas of collaboration not initially foreseen. In our MOS partnerships with Boston-area nanoscale research centers, for example, it became clear after a few years that it was in everyone’s interest to turn some of our focus to developing science communication workshops and intern ships for early career scientists and engineers – training that could assist them in their own research career efforts as well as in their future efforts to reach out to broader audiences. The science museum could provide the workshops as well as practical opportunities with real audiences; with this additional experience, the researchers then amplified the partnership’s impact, becoming rich resources for our visitors and for whatever communities they circulate within. NSEC director Bob Westervelt, who first suggested these science communication workshops, says:

The collaboration continues to benefit all parties. Graduate students who work at the museum connect with the public at an early stage and learn how to integrate their plans and careers with issues of public importance. Museum visitors are drawn into engagement with advances that excite researchers, such as carbon nanotubes and buckyballs, and with larger questions, such as “good” vs. “bad” science. They can see why academic scientists find nanoscience so involving—and can raise any concerns they may have about the new technologies.

[Westervelt 2008]

The success of these collaborative efforts has led the partners to join together on new grant proposals in other areas of research and education.

Similarly, the collaboration between the Madison NSEC and the Discovery Center Museum in Rockland has encouraged those partners to conceive and collaborate on successful proposals for new ventures, including the construction of a novel carbon playground.

There is just so much good stuff we can do together; the possibilities are endless; and we can get it all out there, into the community…

– Mike Rathbun, Discovery Center Museum

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