Friday, December 02, 2011

The Teacher Can Make All the Difference

Quite a few years ago, I worked for a large corporation that had a high school "internship" program (for lack of a better word). The program was limited to students from the larger core city, not the suburbs (so it was a community outreach program as well). The program consisted of a weekly set of 2-hour "lectures" from January until June, followed by employment during the summer in various labs around the company. The lectures were taught by company employees about a wide range of technical subjects. I gave two talks about polymers and enjoyed it tremendously as it was a great bunch of kids to be working with.

I realized before starting this effort however, that I had to make it interesting, which meant only enough math and theory to clarify concepts, and lots and lots of time in the lab playing with all the craziest non-Newtonian materials I could devise. I had examples of rheopexy (cornstarch/water), the Wissenberg effect (rod climbing), Slime (PVOH/borax/water), Pluronic gels that thickened up heating and liquified upon cooling...Their homework assignment between the two lectures was to find non-Newtonian materials in their homes which they did reasonably well at [*]. And knowing that if I'm not excited about the subject, they wouldn't be, I put as much energy into the talks as possible, portraying how exciting polymer science can be.

The reviews came back at the end of the semester and my jaw hit the floor. The students thought I had done a great job, in fact they consistently ranked me as the second best teacher. It's just that "the cement guy" was better! CEMENT?!?! I never got a chance to talk to that guy, but if he could make cement even more exciting than polymers, I tip my hat to him, and say "the teacher can make all the difference".

[*] My favorite discussion item for a non-Newtonian material at home is toothpaste - a Bingham fluid, but it has to be discussed "properly". To do so, I would set the scene by getting them to think about being in the bathroom. I would then slowly lower myself into an armless chair, pull out some reading material and talk about a material that you need to apply a certain minimal stress to get it moving. Not enough stress and it would pop back in, but with enough stress, things would move along smoothly. It wouldn't take too long before you would see some smiles and smirks and they finally realized what I was talking about - toothpaste! (What were you thinking?)


Anonymous said...

Bless you, sir! If there is one thing that needs to be emphasized, is that teenagers and kids will never be interested in science if they never SEE it (taken away from its day to day use), and if the person talking doesn't make it sound like the most awesome thing in the world.

I remember getting interested due to some enthusiastic researchers from a local polymer processing plant. I would have never guessed science could be interesting were it not for them (since they were phasing out all demonstrations that used anything but water out of the curriculum at that time).

Eric F. Brown said...

Thanks for the laugh, John. And kudos to you for putting in the time and work to make the science interesting.