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Engineers help turn science into interactive exhibits

Madison, Wis. - As part of a new National Science Foundation-funded network, University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering faculty, staff and students will work with some of the nation's top science museums to create hands-on exhibits about technology so small that even the tiniest human fingers can't touch it.

The Museum of Science, Boston, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the Exploratorium, San Francisco, are leading the $20 million Nanoscale Informal Science Education (NISE) Network, which aims to develop innovative materials and vehicles for increasing Americans' knowledge about and understanding of nanotechnology. UW-Madison will be a direct partner with the Minnesota museum in developing publicly accessible nanotech exhibits.

It's science at the scale of atoms and molecules, where researchers measure devices and materials in billionths of a meter and view their work through some of the most powerful microscopes available.

Translating that scientific research into something museum visitors can see, touch, do-and comprehend-is no small feat, says Wendy Crone, a UW-Madison associate professor of engineering physics and director of education and outreach for the university's NSF-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) on Nanostructured Materials and Interfaces.

"We're learning a lot about what works and what doesn't, how to talk to general audiences about these topics and what kinds of interactives - things you can do with your hands - will help people understand the nanoscale," she says. "Nano is so small, you have to work with analogies."
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In November of 2004, Crone and her staff and students unveiled the Nanoworld Discovery Center, an interactive public exhibit about nanotechnology that resides on the UW-Madison campus in the Engineering Centers Building. The exhibit was the result of a partnership between MRSEC and Discovery World Museum, Milwaukee.

In one aspect of the exhibit, visitors can relate the absolutely tiny scale of nanotechnology to their own lives. "In the time it takes you to read this sentence," the exhibit reads, "your fingernail will have grown one nanometer."

Among the exhibit's features is a segment about ferrofluids, which are tiny magnetic particles covered by a surfactant. Visitors can use magnets to manipulate these particles that flow like liquid; in real life, ferrofluids damp vibrations and eliminate excess energy in high-end stereo speakers and are useful as liquid O-rings in situations where the friction generated by standard rubber rings is an issue.

Explorers also can interact with life-sized traffic lights to compare incandescent bulbs to light-emitting diodes to learn how nanomaterials can help conserve energy and reduce traffic-light maintenance. In addition, aspects of the exhibit highlight other applications of nanotechnology, including stain-resistant clothing and the tools that scientists use to work on this small scale.

Building on these ideas and topics from MRSEC research, Crone's group will work most closely with the Science Museum of Minnesota, which under the NSF grant will lead the Center for Exhibit and Program Production and Dissemination. "Each museum will draw on the technical expertise available in various partner institutions," she says. "Our expertise is providing publicly accessible science for museum exhibits."

Renee Meiller with the UW-Madison College of Engineering can be reached at meiller@engr.wisc.edu.

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