Feb. 18, 2006

Cornell museum exhibits allow children to enter world of the very, very small

ST. LOUIS -- Science learning isn't all in books. Sometimes you can hold it in your hand, walk through it, sit inside it, play with it. Those approaches are especially effective with children and can make abstract concepts easier to understand.

Take nanotechnology, for example. Over the last three years, elementary school children all over the United States have been learning about incomprehensibly tiny things by walking through and playing with very large and colorful things in a traveling science museum exhibition created by Cornell University's National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Nanobiotechnology Center (NBTC) in partnership with the Sciencenter, Ithaca's hands-on science museum, and Painted Universe, a local design firm.

The 3,000-square-foot exhibition, "It's a Nano World," first opened at the Sciencenter in 2003. It then traveled to Innoventions at Epcot in Florida, and on to science museums in Ohio, South Carolina, Louisiana, Michigan, Virginia and Texas where an estimated 3 million people have experienced it. The focus of the exhibit, aimed at 5- to 8-year-olds and their parents, is to explain concepts of size and scale, showing children that many things in the world are too small to be seen with the naked eye.

Now in development is a 5,000-square-foot traveling exhibition, "Too Small to See," aimed at middle school students, to explain how nanotechnologists create and use devices on a molecular scale.

Anna Waldron, director of education for NBTC, described these and other outreach programs today (Feb.18) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in her talk, "Too Small to See: Public Understanding of Nanotechnology." The talk was part of a symposium, "Educating Society About Nanotechnology."

Visitors to "It's a Nano World" are first introduced to the idea of scale via a film that zooms from a view of Earth from outer space to an aerial view of Chicago to people picnicking, through a person's hand, down to the hand's molecules. Then, visitors can look through magnifying glasses and microscopes, crawl around inside a simulation of a drop of blood, play games with large versions of such tiny things as dust, pollen and germs, and learn about the cells and DNA in their bodies.

"Too Small to See," the exhibition currently being developed, will show how nanodevices are made from silicon crystals using photolithography or are assembled atom by atom, and explain how devices smaller than cells can be used in biological research.

"It's a Nano World" was developed and tested over three years with funding from the NSF. "Too Small to See," with $1.8 million in NSF funding, is now being tested with help from 300 Ithaca children, among others. Cornell social science students are helping to evaluate the effectiveness of the exhibits as teaching tools.

Other outreach efforts of the NBTC include providing curriculum materials for K-12 teachers, running science clubs in local schools and a summer "science week" day camp, and offering teachers and children hands-on workshops at a downtown location called "Main Street Science." In all, Waldron said, the center has 15 educational programs that have reached 3,000 children in the Ithaca area, as well as students and teachers much farther away.

Elementary school teachers often lack a strong background in science, Waldron explains, so the center also sponsors workshops for teachers, involves Cornell student volunteers in classroom visits and provides a "lending library" of science kits for local schools. Some of the kits have been requested by teachers across the nation and in Canada. Each boxed kit represents a unit of instruction and includes a lesson plan, student worksheets and such materials as magnets, balances or thermometers.

While the focus is nanoscience, Main Street Science takes a broad view, Waldron said, to improve students' knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math.