Plastic Fantastic Redux

For the last couple of weeks, high school students from Santa Barbara, Goleta, Lompoc, and as far as Bakersfield have been finding their way to the UCSB campus to discover scientific concepts in a novel and unique way. These precocious youths have been spending their Saturdays (Yes, high school students sacrificing their Saturdays) in a noble quest to understand the physical world. The School for Scientific Thought, as the Saturday courses are named (and abbreviated as SST), are not like ordinary high school courses; graduate students like me design courses on whatever we find interesting and invite inquiring teenagers to learn about what drives us to spend over two decades in school.

Chris, who works in a lab that my group often collaborates with, and I both independently applied to the program over summer, both of us hoping to teach a course about polymers and plastic electronics. Polymers (just a science-y and broadly sweeping name for plastics) are incredibly interesting but often overlooked and underappreciated. I mean, you can imagine living 100 years ago with no car, no television, and no internet, but you probably would never even consider that you wouldn’t have re-sealable bags for your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Plastic electronics are even newer; a recently emerging field that could have fascinating niche applications. Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) are now being used in displays since they can give sharper images than their inorganic counterparts. Plastic solar cells could be printed onto sheets that look like laminated paper and rolled onto rooftops for easy installation. Flexible transistors could turn the “Bendgate” iPhone fiasco into a desirable feature. Chris and I decided to team up and tackle this course together.

Probably the greatest thing about these courses is that they are designed by graduate students who know the material and want to share it with the world. A good teacher knows what students need to know and how to convey that information. A great teacher has tremendous enthusiasm and can make things like naming acids sound exciting. My high school chemistry would make up songs and film music videos, engaging the class and avoiding droll, unentertaining lectures. She was one of the reasons I pursued a degree in chemistry; her enthusiasm was inspirational and made me want to find something that I could demonstrate a similar passion toward.

Luckily, I did find what I was interested in, and I’ve already started reaching out toward others, hoping to make a similar impact that Mrs. Meyers made on me. After a couple of training sessions, Chris and I were ready to teach our first course. We were teaching about polymers, but we had a medley of students: freshman to senior, science enthusiasts to curious dabblers. We started from the beginning, showing them the basics of an atom, how atoms could be connected together with bonds, and how millions of atoms and bonds form a polymer chain. A polymer chain is like a bead necklace, we explained while demonstrating how this is so. If you place a long bead necklace in a cup and let one end fall to the floor, the rest of the necklace would follow. It might even looking like the beads were defying gravity. The same thing would happen with a liquid polymer. If you started pouring the polymer, even if the cup was turned upright, the polymer would continue to siphon out of the container since the chain are so long and connected.

The goal of our course has been to show how changing the structure of a polymer (from individual atoms to how chains are arranged to how blobs of polymers interact) can change physical properties. The first course let us utilize our creativity and design an activity that demonstrates this. For example, polystyrene is the chemical name for the polymer that makes Styrofoam. Polystyrene is also the same polymer that most red plastic cups are made out of. The main difference is that Styrofoam is processed with little pockets of air in between blobs of polymers to give it soft and insulating characteristics. On a completely different length scale, individual chains of polymers can be crosslinked, which is when bonds between long chains are formed. This would be like taking slick strands of cooked spaghetti and tying them together. Before, the long spaghetti strands could flow past one another like a liquid. When they’re tied together, the strands are stuck in place and the material would behave more like a solid. Silly Putty is a crosslinked polymer; silicone oil, which is used to lubricate machine parts, is crosslinked to form the crazy rubbery novelty toy.

For the second Saturday, the kids got to act like bona fide chemists and actually make their own Silly Putty. Starting with a couple of chemicals, our students followed the procedure like old pros even though most of them had never donned a lab coat or even set foot inside a laboratory before. The students were inquisitive and intrigued, asking questions and making observations. It was initially difficult, though. Many of these green scientists were intimidated by the lab equipment, like Erlenmeyer flasks and separatory funnels, and unfamiliar chemical names, like boric acid and dichlorodimethylsilane, but two instructors ended up being just enough to motivate and guide our 16 students. We paced around the classroom pointing out cool steps in the reaction and probing their knowledge of what was going on. They might not be able to tell us how the original chemical and water react to form a polymer, but hopefully, they walked away learning a little bit more than when they came in. Most importantly, we were able to share our enthusiasm and perhaps serve as role models for some of these young scientists.

There’s still a few weeks left in the course. Solar cells and other electronic devices are next on the list. These amazing new technologies could possibly be seen stretched across rooftops someday or might even just provide us with some new knowledge to advance other fields. The only way to realize these far-off visions is by inspiring future generations to feel galvanized by these prospects. My own enthusiasm will help me be a better teacher and enable my students to learn. Whether they learn all of the principles on how atoms bond to form polymers or if they just learn that science is something that can be fun and exciting, it probably won’t be because they were interested in what I knew but more because they knew that I was interested.

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