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Instead of campfires, students gather around liquid nitrogen

The 16 students chosen for materials camp are taking advanced math and science courses in high school and planning careers as doctors, lawyers and engineers.

But until they crunched hockey sticks, bashed in car windshields and saw first-hand the special properties of a super-cooled racquetball at the week-long summer camp, most had only a vague notion of what materials scientists and engineers do.

“Materials camp? What a weird name for a camp,’” said one student.

“I had to ask my teacher what a materials scientist was,” said another.

The students’ naivety about materials science and engineering came as no surprise to Charles R. Hayes, executive director of the ASM Materials Education Foundation that helped sponsor the camp, because there just aren’t that many people in the field. In fact, the United States faces a potentially severe shortage of materials scientists.

“We have an enormous problem recruiting materials science students,” says Hayes, whose employer, ASM, is the world’s premiere organization for materials scientists and engineers. “The number of new students going into materials science has been declining for the past 10 years. More students are opting instead for careers in law or medicine.

“This is a problem that is universal to all engineering disciplines. The nation no longer has the enthusiasm for applied science that it did in the 1960s, when everyone was excited about sending a man to the moon. There’s no emotional next-frontier kind of thing.”

As a result, says Hayes, the profession is aging. Almost one-third of the 350 members of the Lehigh Valley chapter of ASM, for example, are retired or about to retire.

But although scarce, materials scientists are most definitely necessary, especially in today’s rapidly-advancing technological world. Materials scientists and engineers, just for starters, have invented artificial limbs and joints that are compatible with body tissues. They are responsible for new, lightweight materials that have driven down the cost of air travel, and they are indispensable to the ongoing revolution in computers and communications.

Had today’s expertise in materials been available to the builders of the Titanic, the doomed ship would likely have survived its first voyage across the Atlantic.

Lehigh’s unique advantage

To counter these trends, ASM has been offering summer material camps for the past five years in the U.S., Canada and India. The number of camps has doubled each year, from one in 2000 to 17 this year.

Hayes, who works at ASM’s world headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio, says Lehigh’s camp, which was taught by 12 graduate students, is unique.

“Lehigh’s camp is the first to be managed by graduate students,” says Hayes, who observed the camp for three days. “In the other camps, graduate students play a minor role in support of the college’s professors.

“I think the smaller age difference helps the graduate students communicate better with the high school students. Because they’re younger [than professors], graduate students are more enthusiastic about the subject. The high school kids think, ‘This is not my parents talking to me; it’s more like a big brother or sister.’

As a result, the Lehigh model is the one the ASM intends to replicate across the world.

Another advantage Lehigh offers is the quality of the laboratories, especially the electron microscopy labs, in the department of materials science and engineering.

“I visit 50 universities a year,” says Hayes. “Lehigh’s facilities rank the university among the top five in the nation. And the relatively small size of the materials science and engineering department helps to promote a very informal, collegial and respectful relationship between graduate students and professors.”

“Not a hard sell”

Half the students who attended the materials camp were chosen from high schools in the Lehigh Valley, and the other half came from high schools in Reading, Pa.

Once camp began, it was not difficult to excite the students about materials science.

“This is not a hard sell,” said Ann Wysock, vice chairman of the Lehigh Valley chapter of ASM and manager of the press shop at Carpenter Technology Corp., one of the camp’s sponsors. “Ultimately, our goal is to inspire kids to consider materials science as a college major and a career.”

Experiments and lab activities made up 80 percent of the camp’s agenda, and emphasis was given to personal learning experiences.

One experiment showed how rubber becomes brittle when cooled well below minus 100 degrees Centigrade.

Ryan Deacon, a graduate student in materials science and engineering at Lehigh, submerged a racquetball in liquid nitrogen and then handed it to Kristina Snyder, a junior at Northampton Area Senior High School. When Kristina hurled the ball against the wall, it shattered like a glass Christmas tree ornament.

The students also dissected tennis balls, lacrosse balls and baseballs. They subjected hockey sticks made of a variety of materials – carbon fiber, fiberglass, wood and composite materials – to stress tests, learning the difference between stress and compression.

The students also used Lehigh’s scanning electron microscopes and saw first-hand that windshields made of tempered glass shatter more readily than those made of safety glass.

Other sponsors besides ASM and Carpenter Technology included the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, the materials science and engineering department, Brush Wellman Inc., EMV Technologies LLC, Mike’s Auto Glass and Easton Sports.

Deacon and fellow materials science and engineering graduate student Andrew Prescott served as camp co-chairmen. Other graduate students serving as instructors were Ken Adams, Tim Anderson, Mario Epler, Jeff Ferron, Neil Hurley, Brian McAdams, Mike Minicozzi, Brian Newbury, Matt Perricone and Jon Regina.

Wojciech Misiolek, the Loewy Chair in materials forming and processing and director of Lehigh’s Institute for Metal Forming, was the camp’s program coordinator. Richard Vinci, the P.C. Rossin associate professor of materials science and engineering, served as faculty adviser. Arlan Benscoter, research scientist in the department, was lab coordinator.

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Thursday, July 29, 2004

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