Summer Learning Series: Unique Substances

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Almost everything around us and everything we use each day—
the clothes we wear, the dishes we eat from, the computer we use, the bike or skateboard we ride—is made of materials. From the lightest solid material on the planet to an artificially created material with surprising applications, these videos and activities encourage students to explore the material world this summer.

QUEST Lab: Aerogel
It looks like frozen smoke. And it's the lightest solid material on the planet. Aerogel insulates space suits, makes tennis rackets stronger and could be used one day to clean up oil spills. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist Alex Gash shows us some remarkable properties of this truly unique substance.

Outsmarting Oobleck

In this video excerpt from NOVA’s "Making Stuff: Smarter", host and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue learns about the interesting behavior of some fluids with strange flow properties. Watch as he tries to run across a pool filled with Oobleck, a mixture of cornstarch and water that drastically changes its viscosity depending on how hard it is compressed. In a related activity, students mix their own batch of this “smart” material in order to explore its behavior and learn how Oobleck’s strange properties are helping materials scientists design new products and materials.

Shape Shifters: Shape-Memory Alloys and Polymers
In this video excerpt from NOVA’s "Making Stuff: Smarter", host and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue visits Virginia Tech, where scientists are developing an artificial jellyfish that will act as an inconspicuous motion-detecting buoy for the Navy. The jellyfish is propelled by a shape-memory alloy that returns to its original shape after being exposed to heat. In the related demonstration, students discover some other shape-memory materials that can sense and respond to their environments. They also learn how materials scientists are developing new “smart” materials to help solve problems in engineering, medicine, and everyday life.

Making Stuff Smarter Demonstration
In this two-part demonstration, students explore two shape-memory materials (a metal and a plastic) that can be programmed to return to a previously set shape when exposed to heat.


Nova: Making Stuff Activity Guide in PBS LearningMedia has great projects for exploring material science with students.