Engineering professors teach children
about Strange Matter
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”
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
“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: www.lsc.org/
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