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Introducing Nanotechnology to Public and School Audiences

C.L. Alpert
Museum of Science, Boston, US

Keywords: nanotechnology, education, public understanding of research, NNI, NSF

Nanotechnology will play a key role in the development and manufacture of products whose global economic impact is estimated to exceed $1 trillion by 2015. The workforce required to produce those products is estimated at 2 million. A five-year goal of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is to ensure that 50% of faculty and students at U.S. research have access to a full range of nanoscale research facilities and that student access to education in nanoscale science and engineering is enabled in at least 25% of the research universities. This ambitious goal is being underwritten in part by a set of new Nanoscale Science And Engineering Education grant programs being made available by the National Science Foundation. The NSF envisions a revolution in science education from elementary school through the post-graduate level; a systemic change that recognizes the convergence of research in physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, and engineering at the 1 to 100 nanometer scale. The NSF also recognizes the critical need to inform and involve the public in understanding the nanoscale revolution in science and the great potential of its future technology applications. The U.S. public has great interest in nanotechnology, but little understanding, and is at risk of being alienated by too much hype on the one hand and nightmarish science fiction fantasies on the other.. Yet, as NSF Senior Advisor M. C. Roco has written, ''the public is the ultimate user and sponsor of the new technology?.and concerns about unexpected societal implications need to be answered to the public's satisfaction.''* Thus, the nation's R&D labs, public and private, university and corporate, have a critical interest in supporting efforts to increase both public understanding of nanoscale research and educational initiatives designed to modernize science and engineering teaching. How shall we do this? A number of innovative partnerships have been created to explore new approaches to addressing these concerns. These partnerships often involve interdepartmental collaborations at universities, together with local school districts and teacher training programs. When they also involve science museums, the public education agenda can be addressed, and when the science museums partner with mainstream media, an even broader public can be reached. Just such an integrated approach is developing in Boston, in a partnership between the NSF-funded Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center headquartered at Harvard and MIT, with the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Museum of Science, Boston, the Cambridge School system, and the Museum's national media and museum partners. This paper and talk will highlight some of the fruits of that partnership and how they might provide models for similar partnerships elsewhere, also including collaborations with industry. The Harvard-based NSEC runs research experiences for undergraduates as well as for schoolteachers, and involves students in the Cambridge school system. The Museum of Science produces and delivers twice weekly live presentations on topics in nanoscale science and engineering, cablecasts through New England News, short news stories for ABC affiliates, multimedia kiosk and web stories, and guest researcher speaking opportunities. The presentation will include a powerpoint overview of these activities and, if time permits, a sample of a lively and entertaining presentation on carbon nanotubes developed and delivered by Museum education associate Joel Rosenberg.

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