Converting nanotechnology cash into public engagement

The U.S. NSF has a program in Nanoscale Informal Science Education, awarding $20 million over five years to a network of science museums and related institutions. This is the largest single award NSF has ever given to science museums.

One of the main three museums getting the award is the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and Foresight advisor John Gilmore (also an Exploratorium member) brings our attention to what they’re doing with the cash. There seem to be three main thrusts:

1. Three weekends of molecular model building, including a gold crystal, a carbon nanotube, and a carbon nanotube FET. The photos are kind of fun, and quite a few “Nanoscape Assemblers” participated, probably mostly kids.

2. A three-hour lecture/discussion event — including a free dinner! — called a Forum: “The Forum starts with lectures from experts in the field; attendees then break into small groups to discuss approaches to specific issues in nanotechnology. Each group is led by a trained, neutral moderator who guides the discussion. Forums provide a venue where citizens can work together to reason through social problems.”

3. Two artworks, one in which participants “move” giant buckyballs on a screen, and the other that interprets music into nano-reminiscent graphics.

So, are U.S. taxpayers getting our money’s worth? The model building looks fun and educational for young kids. The lecture/discussion appeared to treat nanotechnology as a “social problem” (?). The artworks might attract the interest of young people, but the one that interprets music into nano-like graphics — which are completely divorced from physical reality as far as I can tell — seems a bit dubious in terms of educational value. But maybe I’m being overly skeptical on that! —Christine

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