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Study Helps Nanotech Researchers Hone Outreach Skills

If you could paint a gallon’s worth of paint one nanometer thick, how much area could you cover? The surprising answer – about 930 acres, or slightly larger than New York's Central Park – certainly makes fun trivia fodder. More importantly, however, it points nanotechnology researchers to strategies that help them more effectively communicate the scale, scope, and "wow" of their work to non-technical audiences.

With consumer applications in everything from clothing, personal-care products, and sporting goods to air purification systems, computers, and home appliances, nanotechnology rapidly is becoming an integral part of everyday life. Yet survey results show that public audiences largely lack awareness and understanding of nanotechnology concepts, according to Olivia Castellini, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Now an exhibit developer in the Department of Science and Technology at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, Castellini led a study in which she and three undergraduate interns surveyed 495 people ages 7 to 91 to test the respondents’ knowledge of atoms, nanotechnology, and size scale, and to assess their attitudes toward nanotechnology. The group published its results in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research.

Many survey respondents who had heard about nanotechnology said they learned about it from mass media like television, newspapers, movies, or the Internet, yet less than 20 percent of all respondents could correctly define it as science and technology on a tiny scale. In addition, survey responses relating to the size scale of such microscopic objects as an atom, cell, bacterium, and water molecule showed that people find it difficult to grasp concepts they cannot visualize.

"The ideas that atoms are the building blocks of matter and a conceptual understanding of the tiny size of the nanoscale are central to understanding nanotechnology concepts," said Castellini. "Our study found that the majority of people educated at the middle-school level or higher could recall facts about atoms, but that fact-based knowledge did not necessarily guarantee their conceptual understanding of them."

Communication strategies that emerged from the study also enabled group members to deliver more meaningful nanotechnology information in face-to-face interactions with audiences like schoolchildren, K-12 teachers, and the public. For example, said Castellini, researchers first should assess how much their audiences know about basic nanotechnology concepts such as atoms and size scale, and conduct a review, if necessary. "Highly visual presentations are particularly effective for this purpose," she said. "Additionally, we recommend limiting the number of nanotechnology concepts to two or three to prevent the audience from feeling overwhelmed with too much information."

In the case of nanotechnology, the researchers learned that public audiences have a fairly neutral opinion. "This is actually good news," said Castellini. "As public awareness and knowledge of nanotechnology grows, researchers may be able to avoid overcoming negative opinions or preconceived notions about the technology," she said.

This work is detailed in a paper titled, “Nanotechnology and the public: Effectively communicating nanoscale science and engineering concepts.” This paper was published online in advance of print publication. An abstract is available at the journal’s website. View abstract.

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