Although the participation of minorities in science and engineering has been gradually increasing, merely 4 percent of positions in academic institutions are held by African Americans, according to a study by the National Science Foundation. This fall, Himanshu Jain
, professor of materials science and engineering, took a proactive approach to tackle this problem by traveling to Tuskegee University
in Alabama. He hoped to raise interest in glass science research among students at the historically black university.
Jain is also principal investigator of the National Science Foundation’s International Materials Institute for New Functionality in Glass (IMI-NFG)
at Lehigh. He and the co-principal investigator of IMI-NFG, Carlo G. Pantano of Penn State University, proposed offering a ‘Short Course on Glass Science and Engineering.’ The students, faculty and administration of Tuskegee responded enthusiastically.
Prof. Himanshu Jain delves into glass science and engineering with students at Tuskegee University
"Our hypothesis was that this group of students would engage in learning materials science and engineering, specifically glass science & engineering, much more strongly in an environment in which they felt most comfortable, rather than being transplanted in an unfamiliar surrounding for a limited time," Jain said.
Jain and Pantano initially planned to incorporate the lectures in an existing physics course. However, they were pleasantly surprised to learn that the number of students who wished to take the course far exceeded the limit, with students from many different departments expressing interest in the subject.
Prakash C. Sharma, professor and head of Tuskegee’s physics department, and Akshaya Kumar, associate professor of physics, had the tough task of selecting the most suitable students based on their grades and statement of interest. In the end, fifteen undergraduate and graduate students from the Department of Physics, Aerospace Science & Engineering Department, Chemical Engineering Department, Department of Mathematics and Center for Advanced Materials were enrolled in the course.
The lectures were divided into two parts that were given on two successive Fridays and Saturdays at the end of September through October. Jain taught the first part of the course consisting of nine lectures, followed by the remaining eight lectures by Pantano in the second week.
The course was designed to introduce the students to the fundamentals as well as applications covering structure, properties, processing and manufacturing of glass. Altogether 17 one-hour lectures were presented by the two IMI-NFG teachers, which included demonstrations and videos to generate excitement among the students.
The highlight of the course was a series of hands-on demonstrations developed at IMI-NFG using sucrose-water-corn syrup as a paradigm of soda-lime-silicate window glass
. A video demonstration on the art and science of glassblowing was also very popular, and helped the students relate glass science to the visual and practical effects of viscosity and colorants.
Breakfast, coffee and lunch breaks were provided to the students through the sponsorship of Tuskegee’s Physics Department and Center for Advanced Materials. These breaks provided an opportunity for the instructors to meet and mingle with the students. Both professors were impressed by the excellent quality and enthusiasm of the students.
At the end of the course, the two instructors prepared a set of questions to evaluate students’ learning of the subject. Following the lectures, Professor Sharma used the assigned problem sets as take home exams/quiz, which would be used to grade the students who took the course for credit.
The students also got their chance to evaluate the course and gave it consistently excellent ratings.
"The students who attended the course were highly motivated and interested in learning the subject," Jain said. "Many of them came with a kind of stereotypic sense of glass, but were happily surprised by its numerous attributes, advantages and applications in advanced technology in spite of being one of the oldest man made material."
Based on the positive feedback, Jain felt that the short course was a highly successful experiment in generating the interest of African American students in glass science and engineering, and would like to see it applied to other branches of science and engineering in the future. Jain, Pantano and Tuskegee faculty are moving ahead with plans to turn the lectures into a regular course to be taught as a combination of intensive live lectures and distance learning.
The partnership between Tuskegee and the IMI-NFG also promises to further enhance research on glass science. There is an ongoing collaboration between Kumar and Dr. Hassan Moawad, a scientist visiting the IMI-NFG at Lehigh from the University of Alexandria in Egypt. In addition, many Tuskegee students expressed interest in the REU Programs at Lehigh and PSU.
"Our partnership with Tuskegee University will be mutually beneficial for developing collaborations in research as well as education," Jain said. "It has opened doors for attracting bright African American students to Penn State and Lehigh for pursuing careers in science and engineering. I hope that once the word gets around, we will have a steady flow of these excellent students. The resources of IMI-NFG will further ensure that they gain international experience that is becoming increasingly important with the globalization of science and technology."
Posted on Tuesday, November 25, 2008