Students come to Drexel Materials to learn the fundamentals of the field as undergraduates and to delve deeper into a topic as graduate students. As they become experts themselves in the technical details of materials science and engineering research and the significance of materials in a larger context, some students look to impart their knowledge to others and to generate excitement about the world of materials science and engineering. That’s where D.E.M.O. (Drexel Experiences in Materials Outreach) comes in.
D.E.M.O. is the brainchild of Professor Christopher Weyant, Teaching Associate Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the group’s faculty advisor. Looking for a way to formalize the disparate outreach efforts of the department, Weyant organized student volunteers under the umbrella of D.E.M.O. in the fall of 2013 to give them a cohesive identity and the opportunity to build on each successive activity.
“D.E.M.O. gives our students a unique experience in thinking about how to take very complicated concepts relevant to materials science and engineering and explain them to a child or even an adult that has no prior knowledge,” says Weyant. “This experience not only gives students practice in communication, but also helps them better appreciate their role in making our society better. This occurs in both their efforts in inspiring kids to be creative and innovative in their thinking, but also in their growing appreciation of how their future careers will work to improve lives.”
Approximately 25 undergraduate and 10 graduate students participate in D.E.M.O. annually. While there is no formal leadership structure, more senior, experienced students are appointed to lead a particular event or demo at an outreach event. D.E.M.O. participates in a wide variety of events throughout the year, including larger scale organized events and smaller scale external group visits to Drexel, giving participants, typically K-12 but sometimes a more general public audience, the opportunity to engage in hands-on materials science and engineering activities. Many visitors to D.E.M.O.’s workshops and tables are unfamiliar with engineering, let alone the field of materials, and D.E.M.O. helps to dispel myths and illuminate a new understanding about materials in the larger world.
Weyant touts Philly Materials Science and Engineering Day as his perennial favorite activity, an event co-organized with the University of Pennsylvania Department of Materials Science and Engineering with participation from the Franklin Institute, Academy of Natural Sciences, and other non-profits and corporate sponsors. While many of the other events at which D.E.M.O. presents focus on general science or engineering, Philly Materials Day, held at Drexel University, is solely focused on the field of materials. “Although all of our events are designed to get kids excited about STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] in general, this particular event allows us to focus on the core of the department,” shares Weyant. “In the five years that I have been at Drexel and a part of this event, I have noticed a steady increase in the number of high school visitors that know about our field. We are really getting the word out and giving kids another way to explore their intellectual curiosity and creative engineering minds.”
Other large-scale annual activities include Inspire a Child to Dream Day, the Philadelphia Science Carnival, and the Academy of Natural Sciences STEM Career Days. Inspire a Child to Dream Day, Drexel’s version of “Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work® Day,” gives Drexel employees’ children between the ages of 6 and 13 the opportunity to experience hands-on activities that relate to several Drexel departments. In 2016, D.E.M.O. presented “The Science and Engineering of Stuff: Unusual Material Behavior,” inviting children to explore unusual material properties and how they are used for producing energy-efficient lighting, water adsorbing plastics, and metals that remember their shape after being bent. The Philadelphia Science Carnival is a 100+ exhibitor event featuring hands-on activities focusing on STEM. D.E.M.O. presented two demos at this year’s carnival: Nanoparticles in Sunscreen and Structural Color. The Academy of Natural Sciences STEM Career Days, which targets middle school-aged students, aspires to get kids excited about STEM fields before they start getting into the rigor of high school science and math. D.E.M.O. also used this event to highlight “Unusual Material Behavior,” inspiring curiosity in materials that can be manipulated to do some strange but interesting things.
D.E.M.O. is committed to expanding access to materials science and engineering to those who have historically been underrepresented in the field. As such, the group has expanded its efforts this year to encourage more girls to choose STEM and, in particular, materials. In addition to ongoing participation in Drexel’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, the group also participated in a middle school college fair at Drexel, a STEM conference for girls at Drexel, and the Young Women’s Conference in STEM at Princeton University.
The impact D.E.M.O. has on Drexel students is felt by the repeat volunteers who seek out the chance to participate in the next D.E.M.O. event. Katie Van Aken, PhD candidate in Materials Science and Engineering and one of the lead outreach presenters in D.E.M.O., has personally greatly appreciated the opportunities D.E.M.O. has given her to stretch her wings as a scientist and engineer. “I have loved getting to share my excitement for what I do through D.E.M.O and I am rewarded with the knowledge that we are inspiring future scientists to learn even more.”