Engaging the public in nano: How science museums and centers are using social media

Sunday, 15 February 2015
Exhibit Hall (San Jose Convention Center)
Leona Yi-Fan Su, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
As traditional media structures devote decreasing efforts on coverage of science and technology, enhancing understanding of the communication of information between informal science education (ISE) institutions and lay audiences across emerging social media platforms is becoming increasingly important. Using NanoDays, which is the largest nationwide festival of educational programs about nanoscale science and engineering, as a case study, this study looks into how more than 250 science centers and museums use Twitter and Facebook to engage stakeholders and public in learning nanoscience. The aim of this study is three-fold. First, it examines the volume of Twitter and Facebook discussions about NanoDays and performs cross-year comparisons from 2010 to 2014. Specifically, it also looks into tweet utilization of hyperlinks and retweets. Second, this research analyzes the types of discourse about NanoDays in several domains including event-related information, participation experiences, volunteer engagement, news coverage, and mention of other scientific exhibits. Third, it explores the relationship between the amount of Twitter traffic surrounding NanoDays within a geographic region (e.g., a state in this study) and the presence of Nanoscale Informal Science Education (NISE) Network-affiliated member sites.  Relying on a content analysis method that combines human coding with an online opinion tracking software, this study identified 4,570 tweets and 575 Facebook posts over the 4-year period. Tweets about NanoDays have increased steadily while Facebook posts decreased annually. Approximately 80% of the tweets included hyperlinks which encourages followers to retrieve more information by following links to external websites. Analysis further revealed that tweets and Facebook posts about NanoDays event-related information made up the largest proportion (approximately 60%) while posts referring to participation experiences and volunteer engagement accounted for only 10%. The findings suggest that online discourses about scientific events (e.g., NanoDays) are mainly unidirectional. ISE centers treat social media largely as a marketing platform, which may help decrease the event attendance gaps by connecting with more diverse and hard-to-reach sets of audiences. Nonetheless, more efforts on tapping two-way engagements should be encouraged to help with greater information dissemination and awareness of nanotechnology among different lay audiences. Importantly, states with more NISE-Network-affiliated ISE centers exhibited higher volume of tweets, suggesting the real-world influence and importance of the supportive network formed among ISE institutions. More implications are discussed in the paper.