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Engineering professors teach children about Strange Matter

Most professors in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) have a full plate. They are not only teachers, but also researchers. In addition to actually doing research, which in itself is time-consuming, they must write grant proposals seeking funding for that research. They have the responsibility of advising graduate students and teaching undergraduates; and many faculty members take on administrative positions or participate on committees.

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Photo by Susan Farlay

Chemical Engineering Professor Richard Register explains bulk properties of non-Newtonian fluid polymer (i.e., plays with Silly Putty®) at an “Ask a Scientist” demonstration as part of the Strange Matter Exhibit at Liberty Science Center.

So why would any professor of engineering be interested in adding another item to a plate that is already overflowing?

The answer is simple: they love what they do and want to share that love and excitement with everyone.

“It is important to have a larger part of society appreciate scientists and engineers and the contributions they make to society,” said Richard Register, professor of chemical engineering. “It has national importance because science and engineering are not as popular for career choices as other fields, and there are consequences to such choices. We have to have people inventing things to keep us competitive in the world economy.”

A new exhibit at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., is giving engineering professors and their graduate students an ideal forum in which to share their enthusiasm for science and engineering and to help stimulate the intellectual curiosity of children.

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A girl and a boy manipulate blobs of ferrofluid with rare earth magnets at the Strange Matter Exhibit at Liberty Science Center.

Photo courtesy of Liberty Science Center

Titled Strange Matter, the 6,000-square-foot exhibit offers a wide variety of hands-on “gee whiz” experiences that have not previously been seen outside of laboratories and presents the wonders of materials science in a format that is both educational and entertaining.

“Every object we encounter, whether natural or man-made, is composed of materials with specific attributes that influence it is created, used, and even destroyed,” said Dina Schipper, communications manager for the Liberty Science Center. “By understanding those properties, scientists—and future scientists—are able to make objects that are more useful.”

Princeton professors are participating in the “Ask a Scientist” series that is a Saturday component of the Strange Matter exhibit.

“This is an opportunity to take some of what we do here in our laboratories and put it into a broader arena,” Professor Register said. Professor Register and his graduate students Katsuyaki Wakabayashi, John Hatjopoulos, Jeff Quinn, and Sasha Myers introduced children and their parents to materials and polymer science.

“If you can explain a subject to a child, you can get pretty much anyone to understand what you are talking about,” Mr. Hatjopoulos said.

Professor Register said that materials science really lends itself to programs such as this one.

“One of the nice things about materials science is that it’s very concrete and tactile for children, rather than something more abstract,” he said. “This is a good way to reach kids and get them interested in science and engineering.”

That approach worked with Mr. Wakabayashi some years ago.

“When I was growing up and went to science museums, I always wondered ‘who are these people in the museum having fun with science,’” he said. “Now I know how it feels to be on the other side of the table. The personal satisfaction that some kids now know a little bit more about materials science and polymers was worth the trip.”

David Srolovitz, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, agreed.

“We have to get people interested in science and materials science for the future,” he said. “Doing it outside the classroom is the best approach. Also, it was great fun for me!”

Professor Srolovitz demonstrated how the properties of polymers change when you deform them very slowly or very quickly, and how they change with temperature. He also demonstrated the polymerization process by making artificial snow “and a few other tricks to amaze kids.”

He said he hoped the children developed a sense that science is interesting and something that they can understand, and that perhaps they will decide to be scientists when they grow up.

Graduate student Barclay Satterfield participated with her adviser Jay Benziger, professor of chemical engineering. The pair demonstrated the visco-elastic properties of polymers.

“We showed unusual properties such as water absorption and swelling of polymer gels, the flow and strength properties of polymers and polymer solutions, and the use of polymers for electrical use in fuel-cell cars,” Professor Benziger said.

“The kids got a chance to play with Silly Putty®,” Ms. Satterfield said. “They watched it flow, but then when they hit it with a hammer, nothing happened.” She added that she believes a university such as Princeton should “use some of its intellectual resources to enrich its community.”

Princeton’s participation in Strange Matter was coordinated by Daniel Steinberg, education outreach director for the Princeton Center for Complex Materials (PCCM), which is a National Science Foundation-funded center for materials science and research.

Dr. Steinberg said 15 groups from Princeton are participating, including professors from the engineering, chemistry, and physics departments.

“It’s part of PCCM’s mission to do education outreach,” Professor Register said. “And that is aligned with the University’s mission.”

About the exhibit

Strange Matter has proven to be a very popular exhibit at the Liberty Science Center, with more than 60,000 guests attending during the first two months, said Dina Schipper, communications manager for the Liberty Science Center.

This exhibit is a popular destination for school trips, with about 30 schools visiting per week, Ms. Schipper added.

The Ask a Scientist visits are collaborations between Princeton Center for Complex Materials and Liberty Science Center, while the Strange Matter exhibit that they support was developed by the Materials Research Society.

The exhibit and tour are made possible by the support of the National Science Foundation, Alcan, Dow, Ford Motor Co. Fund, Intel® Innovation in Education, and the 3M Foundation.

Strange Matter was at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., through May 2, 2004. This exhibit then traveled to the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton, Va., and in October it moves to the Boston Museum of Science in Boston. A smaller exhibit (about one-third the size) is visiting Albuquerque, N.M., Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and Boise, Id.

For more information about Strange Matter, check out the Website at:


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