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Camp creates materials witnesses

A phone book soaked in water and frozen into an ice block rests innocently between two large cinder blocks. An athletic teenager wielding an ax takes careful aim and swings at the ice block.

Thwack!!

The ax strikes the book but the frozen mass does not even crack. The boy tries again and again, swinging harder each time. Moments earlier, he had used the same ax, first to shatter a block of pure ice and then to crush a telephone book.

But the frozen phone book refuses to break.

Pat Clasen, a graduate student in materials science and engineering, explains the phenomenon to a group of puzzled high school science students.

The frozen phone book, Clasen says, is an example of a composite material, or a mixture of two or more materials that combine to make a new stronger material. Composite materials occur naturally in bones and wood, or they can be manmade, like concrete and fiberglass. Most composite materials consist of a matrix reinforced with other materials like fibers or particles.

In the case of the frozen phone book, Clasen says, the water forms a matrix to hold the paper while the paper reinforces the structure of the ice.

"When combined, the brittle properties of the ice and the flexible properties of the paper are not there," Clasen explains. Instead, the paper strengthens the ice and the ice gives the paper rigidity.

Thus, Clasen says, "we have optimal properties of both."

Clasen and 17 other volunteer graduate students ran the second annual Materials Camp at Lehigh in mid-July. The camp, sponsored in part by ASM International, the world's premiere materials science and engineering organization, introduced 16 local high school students to materials science and engineering.

Similar camps are offered throughout the country, but Lehigh's is the only one run entirely by graduate students.

"[The graduate students] are not seen as authority figures," says Ann Wysock, chairman of the local ASM chapter, "so the [high school] students are more open to information and absorb it better."

Materials Camp gives students their first taste of materials science and engineering. At Lehigh, most engineering students first experience materials science during the engineering tour in their freshman year. Before this, few of them have even heard of the field. Recently, fewer students have been choosing to study materials science and ASM membership has been declining.

Students who attend Materials Camp leave with a greater interest in materials science and engineering, Wysock says. After last year's camp, three of the 16 students said they had decided to pursue a materials science degree.

Ryan Deacon, a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh and camp co-coordinator, considers himself lucky to have learned about materials science during high school. He entered college planning to major in materials science.

"It's not just engineering," he says of the field, "and it's not just science. It's both. You learn to understand why things work and how to manipulate [them]." In materials science, students learn about the property of different materials and how these properties can used to make better products.

Deacon and Neil Hurley, a master's degree candidate, organized the camp around four themes: transportation, sports equipment, failure analysis and composite materials. The students broke and examined a variety of items, including hockey sticks, fishing rods, gun barrels and racquetballs.

Patrick Reedy, a junior at Muhlenberg High School, knew nothing about materials science until his father suggested that he apply to the camp. After a few days, Reedy began to look at objects differently.

"I see what goes into building something," he says. "It's not just put together."

Before Materials Camp, Reedy planned to study biology in college, but now he sees materials science as a definite possibility.

Ayelit Notis, a senior at a private Jewish high school in New Jersey, was already considering majoring in engineering. She will be continuing a family tradition, as her grandfathers, Arnold Marder and Michael Notis, are both professors of materials science and engineering at Lehigh.

Ayelit spent the week before Materials Camp examining a valve from the Columbia space shuttle with Marder.

The camp helped expand Ayelit's knowledge of engineering even further.

"I didn't realize how interesting engineering could be," Ayelit says.

by Becky Straw '06

Posted on Monday, August 01, 2005

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