It's a Nano World

Topic: Technology

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Catherine McCarthy

Published on July 30, 2007

  • Description and goals

    It’s a Nano World: Smaller than a Spot on a Ladybug

    A traveling 3,000 sq. ft. hands-on interactive museum exhibition that introduces children and their families to the biological wonders of the nano world that’s too small to see with just your eyes. Designed for 5-8 year olds and their families.


    Nanobiotechnology is a big word made up of three parts:

    NANO is really, really tiny,
    BIO is living things, and
    TECHNOLOGY is about tools.

    All together it means using very tiny tools
    to learn about living things.


    This is an exhibition about really, really tiny things that are too small to see with just your eyes. Scientists can make and use special tools to study these tiny things. Specific age appropriate learning goals have been developed and tested with diverse audiences.

    • Amazing things happen that are too small to see with just your eyes.
    • Scientists and kids can use tools to observe these small things.
    • There are many small things inside my body.
    • All living things are made of cells.
    • Nano is really, really small.

  • Development process and challenges

    “Ask elementary children to imagine a world inside their body too small to see – tough assignment for a six year old. Ask a scientist to explain nanobiotechnology in words a second grader understands – tougher yet.”
    - Douglas Spencer, EDU Inc., project evaluator

    From concept to completion, constant evaluation was used to ensure that It’s a Nanoworld was fun and educationally sound. The Sciencenter and Painted Universe Inc. worked closely with the Nanobiotechnology Center at Cornell University and Edu, Inc. to gather feedback and input from kids, teachers and curriculum specialists to design the exhibition content.

    The challenge was formidable – help kids enter and understand a world they cannot see and do it without creating misconceptions. This means presenting primary concepts of cellular biology and a genuine experience of small things. Many early elementary children are new readers, who have very little exposure to science and think that an ant is very, very small and the number 1,000 is very big.

    Exhibit Design and Improvement – Formative Evaluation
    During a two year formative evaluation process, we prototyped, tested and refined exhibits, video scripts and footage, graphics, icon and signs.

    An additional 350 children were interviewed in classrooms, after-school programs, and at museums over this two-year period to gather information from children to help the exhibit designers make decisions about: refinement of exhibit concepts, delivery of educational content, and specific aspects of physical exhibit design and construction.

    All exhibits prototypes were refined repeatedly to better meet the needs of the target audience. Many early prototypes were discarded and not included in the final exhibition because they were judged too boring or age inappropriate by focus groups.

    Since many 5-8 year olds (K-3rd graders) cannot yet read or are only early readers, efforts were made to deliver much of the exhibit content using graphic images and audio as well as simple text.

    The exhibition as a whole was re-designed so that key educational content was repeated at least three times throughout the exhibition so as to offer repeated exposure of new vocabulary and concepts to young children.

    The team applied the same process to evaluating signs, icons, graphics and fonts. The result was replacing most instructional “How To” signs with simple, easy to understand icons and graphics. A set of content signs targeted at adults and older children were written at a sixth grade reading level.

    In addition to feedback from the target audience, the Sciencenter also collected feedback from NBTC nanobiotechnology faculty and researchers, museum staff and docents, and other museum visitors.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    • Understanding what children know and want to know about science dramatically raises the chances of designing successful learning.
    • Front-end research revealed what children know or misunderstood about science. For example, some children confuse “cells” with “cell phones,” jail “cells” or “boat sails”.
    • Difficult concepts were relative size, measuring, making abstract concepts understandable, and grasping things too small to see.
    • Many of the target-aged children said that 1,000 is the biggest number and that a bug is the smallest living thing.

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