Living in a material world

On Feb. 3, hundreds of elementary and middle-school aged students and their families gathered around tables for hands-on demonstrations and workshops with themes ranging from “bouncy balls and borax” to “muggle magic.”

The demonstrations were part of the eighth annual Philly Materials Science and Engineering Day, a daylong festival hosted this year by Penn’s Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter (LRSM) and the Drexel University Materials Science Department.

Sixty-five graduate and undergraduate students, postdocs, and faculty from Penn filled nearly half of the Philly Materials Day demo tables. In all, 12 groups affiliated with the LRSM participated. Eric Stach, a professor of materials science and engineering at Penn, performed feats of levitation using high temperature superconductor materials, while Ph.D. candidate Lisa Mariani, from Kevin Turner’s mechanical engineering and applied mechanics lab, explored sticky materials’ properties using everyday materials like strips of scotch tape.

According to Mark Licurse, director of education and outreach at the LRSM, the goal of the event was to teach kids about how all the materials around them impact the world, from the basic to the high-tech.

“Materials is a hot area for a reason,” he says. “A lot of what’s exciting in science and technology these days has a connection to materials. The key for us is to develop good ways to show these links and get kids excited.”

A major focus of the LRSM, Licurse says, is an expansive set of education and outreach programs, which strives to excite and reach out to all age groups about materials science.

“Lots of people get overwhelmed and scared by some aspects of science,” Licurse says. “Generally, we want to increase the number of people in the STEM pipeline, and engaging kids at younger age levels can help. However, I am less focused with how much they learn at this age. If we can get them to spend a Saturday having fun, developing interest in STEM, and learning a few things along the way, then to me that’s already a big win. Hopefully next time they walk into a science classroom they will be a little more excited and a little bit less nervous about it.”

In addition to the benefit of Philly Materials Day for elementary and middle-school aged children, Licurse says the festival is valuable for the Penn students and faculty who get involved. The process helps teach them to take complicated science and talk about it in a way that the general public can understand and get excited about—an often overlooked yet critical skill.  

“It was amazing to see our undergrads, grad students, postdocs, and faculty explaining complex concepts to groups of young people who are in the beginning stages of their learning curves,” says Arjun Yodh, director of the LRSM. “Philly Materials Day fits one of the outreach missions of our NSF-funded Materials Research Science & Engineering Center to engage young folks at early stages. The kids were really receptive.” 

Materials Science Day