NISE Net: Making a macro impact with nanoscience

Published August 08 2016

Water droplets bead on nano-coated fabric. WILLIAM THIELICKE Larry Bell

Larry Bell is the senior vice president for strategic initiatives at the Museum of Science in Boston. Geoff Hunt, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s outreach manager, talked with Bell about the National Informal STEM Education Network, or NISE Net, a National Science Foundation-funded initiative that Bell has directed since its inception in 2005. This interview has been edited for style and content.

How did the NISE Net get started?

The NSF was investing about $1 billion a year in nanotechnology research, and all of the surveys said that the public didn’t know anything about nanotechnology. I think folks at the NSF were worried that the public was going to learn about nanotechnology from Michael Crichton’s novel “Prey.” They wanted people to learn about it some other way.

The NSF put out a solicitation looking for a science museum to take on the job of building a network of informal science education organizations and university research organizations to raise the public’s level of awareness, knowledge and engagement with nanoscale science, engineering and technology. We partnered with the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Exploratorium in San Francisco to put together a proposal.

What is the main function of the NISE Net?

The original idea was that we would work through science museums and their university partners to reach the public. It was uilt on the idea of, “Who are the audiences at science museums?” Because science museums have so many young visitors, if you wanted to reach the adults, the parents, who were visiting the museum with their children, you had to have something for the children to do too. So the NISE Net developed activities that would work for young children, older children as well as adults, so that the whole family could be engaged.

Give me an example of an activity

We made these pants that were about big enough for a doll to wear, one with nano-coated fabric and one without nano-coated fabric. There’s a little squirt bottle with a little bit of water. You put a couple of drops of water on one of the pants, and the water soaks in. You put a couple of drops of water on the other pants and they roll right up; they bead up and roll right off.

It’s clearly an activity that a little kid can do: give them the squirt bottle, let them squirt a little bit of water, and they see that it rolls off. At the 2015 Coalition for National Science Funding Annual Exhibition on Capitol Hill, the director of the NSF ( France A. Córdova) came over to our table, and the first thing she went over to was those little nanopants and squirted water on them. It’s an activity that works for people of all ages.

Who designs the activities?

Some of the very first activities had been developed by the education and outreach folks at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Some of their activities that were designed for classrooms got redesigned by the folks in the NISE Net to use in this kind of informal environment. But then we had a team (that) would work on developing different kinds of activities in sort of prototype form. They were balancing subject matter and how complicated the activities were and how expensive they were. Could they make 250 copies of them? Were the parts easy to get?

The nano-fabric kit is one of several activities designed by NISE Net. EMILY MALETZ FOR NISE NET

How do the activities go from idea to reality?

(The design team) would show (activities) off to their peers in meetings. People would bring their activities and get feedback from each other. They were responsible for getting review by scientists to make sure the science was accurate. Then they would have to take them out on the floor of the museum (or some other place where they had access to a public audience) and test them with the audience and make modifications to improve them. When they had gone through all of those steps, they could add them to the NISE Net online catalog. And then the team would perfect the activities for inclusion in kits.

How can ASBMB members get involved with the NISE Net?

Digital versions of the kits are online. If there’s a science museum in your neighborhood not too far away, it’s possible that that science museum has gotten (an activity kit) and by connecting with them you could get your hands on the physical materials. Even though we, the Museum of Science, may be coordinating an event, it’s grad students and undergraduate students who actually are using the activities to interact with the public. And the public gets a kick out of that, because they’re talking to people who are actually working in the field.

What can we expect from the NISE Net going forward?

The NISE Net is continuing on to developing more materials. We’ve just sent out a bunch of kits about synthetic biology as part of the Building with Biology project. Those kits are being used this summer by a bunch of organizations around the U.S. We’re just about to start a new project on chemistry. We’re going to go through about a year’s time in a design-based research project. Then we’ll make 250 kits, and we’ll put those out into the field.

Can you give me an example of the kind of impact these activity kits can make?

A representative from a children’s museum (later revealed to be the Port Discovery Children’s Museum in Baltimore) said, “Initially, to bring nano to the museum after I went to my very first workshop, I didn’t get a lot of support. There was a lot of, ‘We’re not a science center,’ and, ‘That’s not what we do.’ … But now, it’s a very different thing. Nobody wants nano to stop. It has become embedded in our museum. It is our niche. It is what we do.” So totally transformative!

Geoff Hunt Geoff Hunt is ASBMB’s outreach manager. Follow him on Twitter.