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January 12, 2004
Volume 82, Number 02
CENEAR 82 02 p. 40
ISSN 0009-2347

Science museum exhibition and website raise awareness of materials in everyday life


"Zoom!," "Smash the Glass," and "Materials Smackdown" are a few of the colorful descriptors for the interactive activities of a traveling science museum exhibition on materials science that is set for its grand opening on Jan. 31. In the meantime, the project's accompanying website is up and running and has already garnered several awards.

"Strange Matter," as the exhibition and website are named, was designed and produced by the Materials Research Society (MRS) in conjunction with the Ontario Science Centre, in Toronto. Funding for the project is being provided by the National Science Foundation and industrial partners 3M, Dow, Ford, Intel, and Canada-based aluminum processor Alcan.



CURIOUS KIDS Visitors to the Strange Matter exhibition can swish gloved hands around in a vat of magnetorheological fluid and feel it morph from a fluid to a solid when a magnetic field is switched on (left), or manipulate a blob of ferrofluid between rare-earth magnets. OSC PHOTOS

Strange Matter was developed by a team of MRS members, education experts, and museum exhibit designers to give students and the general public an interactive, hands-on experience to understand the encompassing role that materials science plays in everyday life, explains Shenda Baker, a chemistry professor at Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, Calif., and chair of the MRS oversight committee responsible for the design.

The theme for Strange Matter is that "materials have properties that are sometimes mundane and sometimes mysterious and often are hidden to the outside viewer," Baker says. One goal is to have visitors understand that materials scientists are chemists, biologists, physicists, and others who study the structure, properties, processibility, and performance of metals, ceramics, semiconductors, polymers, and composites.

In all, some dozen activities targeted for 5th to 8th grade students expose visitors to different types of materials. For example, in "Smash the Glass," visitors can test the strength of heat-tempered glass by whacking it with a bowling ball. In "Memory Metal," visitors can crumple and twist ribbons of Nitinol (nickel-titanium) alloy--which is used in eyeglass frames, orthodontic braces, and stents for heart surgery--and watch them snap back into their original shapes with a blast of hot air.

Other areas explored include foams, magnetic liquids, and crystal growth. There's also a materials science overview video featuring practicing scientists and daily live demonstrations by local scientists to provide deeper explanations and bring together various elements of the exhibition.

FUN WITH FOAM A tower of foam is generated from a simple mixture of dishwashing soap, detergent, and glycerin. The bubbles are formed in a bucket using an aquarium aerator and grow up a guide wire. The cells of the foam "ripen" as the column ages, coalescing into larger cells near the top. OSC PHOTO

"WHAT DISTINGUISHES Strange Matter from other science shows is that from the beginning MRS planned the exhibition to be the centerpiece of community outreach efforts," Baker says. "As the show travels from venue to venue, local materials scientists can get involved or enhance their existing outreach interactions with students and teachers through demonstrations at the exhibition, its accompanying teacher's and family activity guides, and visits to schools or class tours to their institutions. With this approach, local scientists can bring the excitement of their particular materials science to the communities that host the exhibition."

A preview of the exhibition opened at the Ontario Science Centre on June 28, 2003, and closed Jan. 4. A 6,000-sq-ft version and a 1,700-sq-ft version of the revised exhibition are now set to begin a three-year tour. The large show will travel first to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., and the small show will travel first to the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque. Both exhibitions will open on Jan. 31 and run through May 2, when they will move to new locations.

The website (, which also began operating last June, includes general information about materials science and a preview of what one can expect at the exhibition. The website is also designed to serve as a stand-in for people unable to get to one of the exhibition sites. The website has several interactive features for exploring materials science. For example, in "Materials Smackdown," users can pit different materials against each other in stress tests, such as plastic against glass or wood against aluminum. In another example, "Zoom!," visitors can zoom in through successive microscope images to view the surface and, eventually, individual aluminum atoms in a soda can.

Strange Matter's Web component includes a detailed teacher's guide designed to supplement the exhibition and website and help integrate materials science into the curriculum. It includes an outline of U.S. National Science Education Standards for 5th through 8th grades and group demonstrations that can be performed. A family guide includes activities that can be done at home, such as making a ferrofluid from baby oil and steel wool. There are also slimy, gooey worms, which can be made by using calcium ions from calcium-fortified orange juice to cross-link alginate in a liquid antacid to form a polymer gel.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2004 American Chemical Society

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