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Informal Science Education Exhibits

To take nanotechnology to a wider audience of students and teachers of all ages, ICE formed a partnership with a leading children's museum, the Discovery Center Museum in Rockford, Illinois, in 2005. The Discovery Center, named to Forbes magazine's "12 Best Children's Museums" and to the National Geographic Society's "Top Ten Children's Museums", has interactive science exhibits as its focus. Through this partnership we have produced a series of informal science education exhibits based on nanoscience technology.

These are among the first children to experience climbing on the structures in the Carbon Playground. Top is the carbon nanotube, and bottom is the C60, buckyball.

Carbon Playground

On Thursday, October 25, 2012, the Carbon Playground became the first place in the world where children could experience the atomic-level structure of carbon by climbing on it and through it—not just one form, but three:

  • C60 model (see photo right bottom)
  • Nanotube model (see photo right-top)
  • Graphene model


As the photographs show, the carbon nanotube and the C60 (buckyball) were very popular. They have been installed in the outdoor play area of the Discovery Center Museum, situated along the Rock River in Rockford, Illinois. A model of a graphene sheet has been installed against a Plexiglas wall near the other two carbon structures so that children can do hand-to-hand climbs on it as well as hang from it.

Among the first children to use the Playground were 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders from Children's House Montessori School in Dundee, Illinois, shown in the photographs. They had a wonderful time and also enjoyed the celebratory milk and buckyball cookies that came later.

Installation was a gala affair including press coverage. Read more about it and see photos at Inside UW Madison/Tennenbaum or see the children in action and meet the UW-Madison group that produced the playground in the video below.


More Information

Along with the models are four signs: one gives an overall description of the Carbon Playground, the others give information about each of the carbon structures. The signs include QR codes because the Carbon Playground is also on the Web at! Children can visit the land of Elementasia, meet Carl (a fictional carbon atom) and his friends and accompany him as he searches for his career (to Carl Carbon's Career Quest). They can also visit Allotrope Island and explore hands-on activities.


The playground structures are large scale molecular models that were developed for ICE by UW–Madison chemistry lecture demonstrator Jim Maynard. Each structure has been built to conform with the molecular shapes of different forms of carbon. The models have been built in accordance with guidelines for construction and materials for public playgrounds: specifically the "Public Playground Safety Handbook", publication 325 of the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission as well as guidelines of local government agencies, should their regulations be more stringent than federal guidelines.

The three models and their role in the playground can be described as follows:

  • The C60 model is approximately 2 meters tall. The structure is meant to be climbed into and on the outer edges.
  • The nanotube model is about 15 feet long and 4–5 feet in diameter. It is a large rope that has been woven into the pattern of a nanotube.
  • The graphene model is approximately 12 feet long and 4–5 feet wide. It is mounted vertically so children can climb from hexagon to hexagon.

People and Support

The Carbon Playground was a large project that involved many people, outside support, test models, and coordination of effort over several years. As the director of ICE, John Moore coordinated the project and Michael Rathbun, Associate Director of the Discovery Center, strongly supported the project. With the help of Andrew Greenberg, John got funding to support its work, which tied in with their role as coordinators of educational outreach for the UW Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC). Jim Maynard, chemistry lecture demonstrator at UW-Madison got the idea for the structures after taking a crystallography class and built the structures with the help of a team of students and the Chemistry Department shop. ICE received funding from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation as well as support from the National Science Foundation through NSEC. Angela Jones, a postdoc with NSEC, created the signs and developed the website. Martha Rathbun, a teacher in Illinois who has participated in summer REU programs supported by NSEC, produced curriculum materials.

The Carbon Playground Project has generated much interest and is being disseminated through the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network. We are considering building additional sets of the three basic models as well as adding additional structures in the future, such as screw dislocation "trees", a diamond network solid, graphite, and a C70 buckyball; other possibilities are conical micro-point sections of carbon and metal oxide tetrapods. We hope that science museums, children's museums, and schools will be interested in having their own carbon playgrounds.


The first Nano Kiosk has been installed in the Discover Center Museum in Rockford, IL.

Library Kiosks

Imagine going up to a kiosk in your local library and actually touching the surfaces of nanoscale objects scaled up to human dimensions!

Using innovative 3D-tactile models developed by ICE, the Discovery Center is producing a series of four types of kiosks for libraries that will allow visitors to feel the surfaces of nanoscale objects, thereby experiencing the amazing nanoscale structures that give these materials their unique properties. (The 3D models were originally developed as teaching aids so blind or visually impaired students might learn about nanoscience topics via a tactile experience.)

ICE staff developed a process to accurately reproduce magnified 3D models of actual nanoscale surfaces. Images from scanning electron microscopes and atomic force microscopes are converted into 3D image formats and then printed on a type of 3D printer known as a Rapid Prototype Printer. The printer produces an accurate 3D model based on the experimental images from the supermicroscopes. The models can be as much as 40,000 times larger than the nanostructures they represent.

The first set of kiosks will include tactile models of the surfaces of CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray Discs; Butterfly Wings; Nanotex Fabric; and Cabbage Leaves. Just looking at the images below gives you an idea of their very different surfaces, but you probably would like to touch them. Now you can! The first kiosk has been installed at the Discovery Center Museum in Rockford, IL. Additional kiosks will be placed in six libraries that are part of the Rockford Public Library system as well as in the lobby of the Chemistry Building of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Over the course of the next six years the Discovery Center Museum with help from ICE will develop three more types of kiosk tops, each containing four tactile models. The library kiosks will be disseminated nationally to science museums and children's museums through the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net). When the Library Kiosk project has been completed, the blueprints and printing instructions will be made available to museums through the NISE Net catalogue of exhibits.

To the left is an image of the wing of a Blue Morpho Butterfly, as seen through a scanning electron microscope (SEM). The nanostructures that can be seen in the image refract light and give the butterfly its distinctive blue color. This image will be available as a 3D model for the library kiosk. Click on the image to see a larger version.

In the center is an image of nanotex fabric from a pair of trousers as seen by a scanning electron microscope (SEM). The nanofibers that can be seen in the image help make the fabric both water and stain resistant. This image will be available as a 3D model for the library kiosk. Click on the image to see a larger version.

To the right, an image of the surface of a CD as seen with atomic force microscopy (AFM). Click on the image to see a expanded version with images of the surfaces of CDs, DVDs, and BluRay disks, all at the same scale. The surface of these three types of media are being converted into 3D models for the library kiosk. The pits in the surface encode computer data or video. Notice how much smaller and more closely spaced they are on the DVD and especially the BluRay disks.


Support for the development of informal science education exhibits is provided by the UW-Madison NSEC