February 10, 2004

A Small World

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Recent visitors to Disney’s Epcot Center theme park are getting a new view of the microscopic world thanks to a four-year collaboration between Cornell researchers and the Ithaca Sciencenter. “It’s a Nano World” aims to explain nanobiotechnology to a young audience.

The exhibit arose from public education programs at the Nanobiotechnology Center (NBTC), a national research center located at Cornell. Constructed by the Ithaca Sciencenter, a science and technology museum, the exhibit kicked off its three-year national tour at Innoventions, part of Epcot Center at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

Nanobiotechnology operates at the scale of nanometers, or billionths of a meter, to study biological systems. At such a small size, researchers can examine how the molecular components of cells interact, and build nano-scale devices to perform delicate experiments on cells and other structures.

“It’s a Nano World” is intended to demonstrate some of this work to children aged roughly five to eight. “The faculty here, they said let’s do something cool for the kids,” said Anna Waldron, Director of Education at the NBTC.

The exhibit features five areas, each with videos and hands-on activities. In one, children use tools to sort balls based on their weight, magnetism and fluorescence, just as scientists sort cells on a much smaller scale.

The Sciencenter became involved through its executive director, Charles Trautmann Ph.D. ’83, who is also part of the faculty at the NBTC. “The Sciencenter has the experts in developing exhibits,” Waldron said, and “Cornell contributed the scientific grounding.”

After testing more than 200 ideas, the Sciencenter assembled an exhibit that first went on display at its museum in downtown Ithaca. According to Catherine McCarthy ’88, Grants Project Manager at the Sciencenter, outside firms were brought in for graphic design and to help evaluate the scores of ideas. “We have other groups at Cornell we work with on projects, but this has definitely been a big one for us,” she said.

Although long slated for a national tour, the exhibit landed at Epcot seemingly by chance. “Some of our faculty members visited Epcot and came back and said, ‘You’ve got to have Nano World come here,'” Waldron said. “It was about a year-long discussion to get from that to where we are now.”

The Sciencenter reinforced the exhibit’s construction to prepare for increased wear and tear. According to McCarthy, “It’s a Nano World” sees up to 90,000 visitors per week at Epcot–as many as the Sciencenter receives in an entire year. “It will have more visitors at Epcot than we expected to see on the whole tour,” she said.

The exhibit is unusual because it is the first university-sponsored project ever to appear at Epcot, despite the park’s technology theme. “This is a fairly unique combination where the university has maintained an active participation,” said Carl Batt, Co-Director of the NBTC.

The Center is officially funded through the National Science Foundation, and according to Batt, it is expected that some of that money will be put toward educational outreach. That goal compliments President Lehman’s mandate that Cornell become a larger part of its community. “The Center has a mission to do outreach,” he said. “If all we do is sit in our labs and do research, then we’re not really contributing to the University.”

Batt added that since the NBTC is mainly public-funded, it is obligated to explain what its work involves — especially since widespread benefits from its research are often many years away. “The notion of, ‘What is the general public getting out of this?’ needs to be a part of what we say,” Batt said.

Misinformation about nanotechnology is another motivation for outreach, according to Waldron. “The Center isn’t just about research, it’s about doing research and communicating that to the community so they can make informed decisions,” she said. “There’s so much out there right now that’s just science fiction.”

The Center’s outreach program, Main Street Science, also targets Cornell students. This year, the Center is offering an education course where students teach local children. “It’s a good experience for them to give something back and to learn about teaching, maybe even to consider it as a career,” Waldron said.

The NBTC and the Sciencenter are already at work on another exhibit that will present nanotechnology to older children. “It’s a Nano World” will remain on display at Epcot until May.

Archived article by Peter Flynn