Nano pedagogy

[For a brief primer on nanotechnology and its recent development, please see the Resources section]

At its core, the hands-on, constructivist pedagogy of the contemporary family-centered science museum is devoted to the exploration of basic science, classical mechanics, astronomy, natural history, and explorations of perception. These topics are perfectly matched to the medium of exhibits and programs. However, many emerging science and technology topics are more difficult to interpret in these formats. Nanotechnology is one of those topics.

Nanoscale matter cannot be seen, touched, nor directly imaged, or manipulated. Hands-on experimentation is out; educators must instead rely on models that are analogies for events that happen on the nanoscale, and these analogies themselves often require explanation. Properties that are the result of nanoscale structures, such as the way a drop of water sits atop a nasturtium leaf or rolls off a Nanotex® tie, can be demonstrated, but not viewed on the scale in which they are occurring. Human beings simply can’t imagine a billionth of a meter. The images produced by scanning probe microscopes are spatial representations of reams of data, colorized and often distorted vertically to appear as scenic planetary landscapes. They have as little relation to the real nature of matter at the nanoscale – the constant high-speed motion – the wave-like manifestations of atoms and electrons, the mysterious “tunneling” of charge.

Cognitive penetration of the nano world may require something beyond the normal textbook or classroom lecture experience approach. Because that world is so counter-intuitive, so contrary to practical experience and so inaccessible to the senses, new multi-dimensional approaches should be explored, possibly involving large-scale interactive models enhanced by audio-visual media, and kinesthetic, sensory, and motor experiences. The task demands expert and research-savvy communicators, skillful at creating mental and physical analogs for atomic-scale processes and making them centrally relevant to diverse audiences.

[2006 Alpert]

Because nanotechnology is an emerging field, scientists, educators and educational researchers have not come to full agreement about how it should be defined and what learning objectives should be applied to nanotechnology education at various grade levels or subject areas. National science education standards have not yet incorporated nanoscale concepts. Within informal science education settings, we tend to emphasize very basic concepts, such as the following:

  • Nanotechnology is an emerging interdisciplinary field of research involving teams of diverse experts in engineering, physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, and information processing.
  • Nanotechnology is expected to bring about exciting new advances in computing, medicine, public health, energy, materials, defense and environmental remediation, and it may have significant impact on the way we live, work, and play. Like all new technologies, nanotechnology may have far-reaching social and economic effects, some of them perhaps unexpected.
  • Nanoscale particles and structures are measured in billionths of a meter, and they are made up of assemblages of atoms and molecules, the basic building blocks of nature. Some nanoscale particles form naturally; some are manmade. The toxicological profile of many nanoparticles is as yet undetermined.
  • At the nanoscale, the properties of matter can change dramatically. Certain forces, like electrical forces dominate over more familiar forces like gravity. The wave-particle duality of matter also comes into play. These special properties can be harnessed to produce useful new materials and devices.
  • New tools are being developed that help scientists image and manipulate matter with nanoscale precision.
  • Some consumer and industrial products using nanotechnology are already on the market. As yet there is no customized regulatory system in place for nanotechnology products.

As can be inferred from this list, science museums are interested in the big picture ideas about this science of the very small. We want to inspire kids with the idea of being personally involved at the frontiers of discovering new knowledge about the nanoscale and in helping to shape the new generation of technologies that will derive from harnessing that knowledge. We also want to keep the public aware and informed about nanotechnology and to engage them as much as possible in discussions about the potential impact of various nanotechnologies. We would like scientists to be involved in these discussions so that they can help communicate what they know and also hear the questions and concerns of other stakeholders in the community.

Like other new technologies, nanotechnology forces us to look beyond our traditional approaches to informal science education. We use new digital forms of imaging and interactivity to simulate the behavior of matter at the nanoscale. We use new forms of social communication – like forums and science cafes – to foster discussion. We bring young researchers, such as graduate students, face-to-face with our young visitors, putting a more diverse and youthful face on the image of science. When we can’t provide face-to-face interactions with researchers in person, we try to capture some of their stories on video and provide them 24/7 on interactive kiosks or on the web.

The NISE Network’s catalog is meant to eventually provide open source access to a wide range of vetted resources and tools, adaptable to a variety of venues and audiences, to guides, and to evaluation studies, in order to try to build a better knowledge base for this work.

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