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Science & Technology

At Philly Materials Day, Drexel Aims to Inspire

By: Ben Seal

January 24, 2017

Students participate in a demonstration during last year's Philly Materials Day.

Students participate in a demonstration at last year's Philly Materials Day.

For Drexel’s scientists and engineers, inspiring others outside the University to take an interest in the subjects they study themselves is a natural part of being in the academic community. The University’s best outlet for building that excitement and energy is the annual Philly Materials Science & Engineering Day, set for Feb. 4 in the Bossone Research Enterprise Center. At the seventh annual event, Drexel staff, faculty and students will join with partners from around the city to host more than 1,000 guests for a series of workshops and hands-on demonstrations that delve into the basics of the materials that make the world turn.

“What’s most important to me is that we stimulate their curiosity — that they realize that you can look at your cellphone and begin to think about what really goes into that,” said Christopher Weyant, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the College of Engineering. “What did scientists and engineers have to think about? Just really get the wheels turning.”

While the field of materials isn’t new, it remains one of the lesser-known corners of the science world, Weyant said. Considering materials’ importance to all of engineering, he and his colleagues are hoping to change that.

The event aims to bring in K–12 students and their families, with a particular focus on children in middle school and high school. Over the course of the day, there will be approximately 25 short demos on some of the basic aspects of materials science and engineering and how they relate to everyday life — everything from metals and ceramics to biomaterials and nanomaterials, as well as electronics and sustainability. Drexel’s partners for the event include the University of Pennsylvania, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Franklin Institute, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, North Penn High School and sponsors GKN Powder Metallurgy and Arkema Inc.

Dorilona Rose, an operations manager in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said the event aligns well with the University’s mission to engage the community and increase knowledge about the STEAM fields (science, technology, engineering, the arts and math).

“Because we’re engaging people on a very basic level, it’s a nice entry into more complex ideas about science and engineering,” said Rose.

In addition to the demonstrations, there will also be a series of half hour to 45-minute workshops throughout the day, mostly run by graduate students from either Drexel or Penn. The workshops give members of the public a chance to go more in-depth on topics that interest them, and they all feature a hands-on component. Last year the offerings included a workshop on light-emitting diodes, which have grown to be an important part of energy-efficient lighting.

To keep everything running smoothly, about 70 Drexel students will volunteer at the event, whether that means working directly on demos or behind the scenes. Weyant’s freshman engineering students in Civic 101, an engagement-focused course, will design demos to share with the attendees at Philly Materials Day as the civic engagement component of the course. He said the event is an important experience, not just for the visitors, but also for Drexel students.

“Giving students the practice to communicate complicated ideas to the general public is good for their development throughout life, to be able to communicate whatever they’re working on,” said Weyant. “It’s really an opportunity for our students to think about communication in a different way.”

In the past, that communication has paid off for everyone involved. According to Leslie Campion, an operations manager in the department, at least a few Drexel students had their first interaction with the University at Philly Materials Day. With the repeated success of the annual event, its organizers have thought about what it might look like if similar programs cropped up elsewhere.

“We have this vision that someday there will be a National Materials Day and we’ll have these all over, but we haven’t really tried to scale it up yet,” said Rose.

In the meantime, Drexel is preparing for the latest version of its one-of-a-kind event and hoping to spark curiosity in the next generation of budding scientists and engineers.