“It's a (ridiculously) small world after all!”

That's the catchy tag line for Discovery World's new Zoom into Nano exhibit, which is on display through Sept. 5. 

The traveling exhibit, which was designed by Sciencenter of Ithaca, N.Y., teaches kids (and their parents) about nanotechnology, which is basically the study and engineering of things that are less than 100 nanometers. How small is that? One meter contains one billion nanometers! 

Nanotechnology is important to learn about because, as Discovery World public relations manager Paul Fladten explained, “Advances in nanotechnology are changing the way we design and fabricate almost everything – from faster computers, to stain repellent clothes, to new medicines to treat diseases, and technologies that are beyond our imagination.” 

The exhibit is 5,000 square feet and is set up in two different areas of Discovery World. The first is on the second level of the technology building, where, in the past, Discovery World has set up its two other temporary exhibits, Grossology and Genome: Unlocking Life's Code. 

The other half of the nanotechnology exhibit is set up in a brand new exhibit space, on a whole new level of Discovery World. Fladten explained, “Well, it was a good problem to have. We ran out of exhibit space!” The museum's administration offices had been in the space, but staff decided that the area, which has an amazing view of the lake and the Hoan Bridge, would be put to better use if it was open to the public. 

So the offices were knocked out, a new staircase was built, and Discovery World now has a huge area for additional exhibits. Fladten said, “Eventually, we plan on having a permanent exhibit there, but for now, it's a good home for traveling exhibits.” 

Those traveling temporary exhibits are something relatively new for Discovery World. They've been using the exhibits, which have all had a health component, to gauge the public's interest in a future permanent medical exhibit. 

Discovery World staff also likes temporary exhibits because the novelty of the new exhibits sparks the interest of visitors to get them in the door and experience the whole museum.

“It's something that's cool for the time being, something that's cool to go to for the summer. It's something to see two or three times, but it may not hold guests' interest for more times than that. And that's okay, because then we'll get something new,' said Fladten.

The nanotechnology exhibit also fits in with the museum's recent push to make its offerings more family-friendly. Discovery World, which was originally envisioned as a charter high school, has for many years considered itself to be a place for older kids to get a taste of science and technology fields in preparation for their careers. 

However, the museum recently has embraced a more family-friendly model and has put more thought into tailoring their activities toward kids of all ages. 

This philosophy is reflected in the molecule building station of the Zoom into Nano exhibit.

“When I bring my kids here, who are one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half, they can't get enough of the exhibit. They play with them like they're building blocks. They don't know what they're doing, but it's giving them a task so they're starting to learn,' Fladten said.

Fladten noted that older kids enjoy building as well, but they're paying more attention to the correct order of the atoms. And he said that even a Discovery World college intern enjoyed building the atoms, and held an audience of younger children captive as she showed them how the different parts bond together to form a snowflake molecule. 

“Everybody's learning at their own level. You don't come here to get a degree. It's just to get you interested. It's where you can go to gauge your interest at a young age,' he said.

So, what are some of the cool ways kids can “zoom into nano” to pique their interests in nanotechnology? 

1. Kids can get hands (and noses) on in the particle progression exhibit. They can sweep the small particles (sand) together to look at under magnifying glasses. Then they can move on to dust up the smaller particles (dust) to see how they float in the air. And, maybe most fun of all, they can't touch the nano particles at all. But they will discover that just because something is too small to see doesn't mean it isn't there. You just need to use your other senses to detect them – in this case your sense of smell. Guests are encouraged to take a whiff of the nano particles and guess what scents they are (Spoiler alert – the scents are orange Popsicle, peppermint, and bubblegum.)

2. Fladten described the carbon nanotubes models as a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids for babies. No doubt the older kids will enjoy it as well as they hide between nanotubes and pose for photo ops. They may learn a little something too, as carbon nanotubes are tubes that are made of carbon atoms that are super strong, super conductive, and scientists expect them to be able to do some super cool stuff, like build a space elevator to transport astronauts. 

3. Kids of all ages love media experiences, and that's something they can enjoy in the full-body interactive video theater experiences – they can stand in front of a screen and use their hands to model pulling apart an RNA molecule, as they learn how small things can be inside our bodies. Then they can run to a second screen and simulate dissolving a crystal of salt by jumping around and dancing to create body heat. 

4. Atoms are the building blocks of matter, so of course kids should be able to build with them! And that's what they can do in the “Build a molecule” station. 

5. When the kids are ready to relax and decompress a bit, they can sit down in front of a bank of old-school phones, pick up the receivers, press a button, and listen to information about nanotechnology from the educational Earth and Sky radio series. Fladten has been pleasantly surprised to observe kids' engagement in this part of the nanotechnology exhibit. He laughed, saying, “They're fascinated by the old phones. Even though they're old, it's like they're new again because kids today don't really know what phones with cords are!” 

The Zoom into Nano exhibit is included with regular admission to Discovery World, 500 N. Harbor Drive, Milwaukee. Hours are Monday-Friday from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit discoveryworld.org.

Amy Schwabe is a Franklin-based freelance writer and mom of two girls.
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