February 10, 2006

Polymer science for everyone: Case School of Engineering faculty, students show that plastics can be interesting—and lots of fun

Polymer science for everyone

"Do you guys do birthday parties?"

That was the question a mother of four young girls asked Case School of Engineering professors Christoph Weder and Stuart J. Rowan as they brought the intricate world of polymers to a whole new audience visiting the Cleveland Museum of Natural History on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, January 16.

Volunteers from Case Western Reserve University's Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering spent the late civil rights leader's birthday educating children and their families on how plastics—and polymers in general—can benefit their everyday lives. Using some everyday examples, the Case team developed a series of fun and educational activities to highlight the role of polymers.

More than 950 visitors participated in the 20-minute program that took them along five science stations. Weder and Rowan, both associate professors at Case, and their research groups led the third annual event, a pioneering science outreach program, in collaboration with the museum.

At the first station, titled "What is a Polymer," graduate student James "JD" Mendez and postdoctoral researcher Jeff Capadona introduced the visitors to the concept of macromolecules with the help of a magic trick and many examples of synthetic polymer objects.

The tour then moved to an overview of "Polymers from Animals," presented by undergraduate student Lauren Buerkle and graduate students Justin Fox and Tejas Upasani. Using wool and Kevlar fibers as an example, the Case scientists demonstrated similarities and differences between natural and synthetic materials.

Graduate students Jill Kunzelman and Blayne McKenzie shared the secrets of "Polymers from Plants." Focusing on biodegradable polymers, they explained the difference between synthetic packaging chips and a cornstarch-based bioversion. Children and adults alike were surprised to see the natural based material disappear when they brought it in contact with water, in contrast to the more familiar Styrofoam packaging.

Under the title "How to Make Things from Polymers" graduate students Brent Crenshaw and Mark Burnworth demonstrated melt and solution processing of polymers. Visitors were surprised to see how easily Gummi Bears (kindly provided by Haribo) could be transformed into rigid films, swollen gels or Gummi coins.

Finally, undergraduate student Eric Giles, postdoctoral researcher Michael Schroeter and graduate student Wengui Weng highlighted the potential of polymeric materials in high-tech applications with their presentation, titled "The Future is Plastic!" They demonstrated the potential of polymer technology developed at Case, including stimuli-responsive polymer gels, high-strength/ultra light polymer AeroClay nanocomposites, smart polymers with built-in deformation and temperature sensors and shape memory materials.

Museum educators Bob Bartolotta and Bethany Sandvik augmented the Case presentations by showing a microscopic view of nature's materials as well as one of nature's better chemists: a live spider.

The event is the result of a long-standing collaboration between the Case team and the museum's educational coordinator, Alison Ball, and is part of the museum's "Winter Discovery Day." The free event is part of the annual city-wide celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his commitment to education. Its main objective is to encourage, in particular, economically disadvantaged families to visit the educational institutions and explore their resources.

The Case participation in this activity is supported through individual National Science Foundation grants awarded to Weder and Rowan with additional support from the Case School of Engineering.

The public response to the Winter Discover Day program has been enthusiastic and significant. Over the first three years of Case involvement, the event has attracted more than 12,500 visitors to the museum, of which more than 2,300 toured the polymer show.

For more information: Laura M. Massie (216)-368-4442.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, February 10, 2006 11:52 AM | News Topics: Community Outreach, Events

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