Friday, February 4, 2011

Just getting past the dead of winter and we're beginning an awesome new project. So last fall as I ran around the internet bookmarking resources I came across Sugru by way of a contest on I stopped moving for two hours while reading about this new synthetic polymer designed by an Irishwoman named Jane. Right out of the pack, before it sets or "cures", Sugru is moldable and plastic-y like play-doh. After 30 minutes it begins to cure and after 24 hours it is a flexible, heat- and cold-resistant, form-keeping waterproof silicone substance. Sugru can adhere things if pressed together before curing, making it handy for repairing or modifying anything, really. Seeing as how my main objectives for Intro to Engineering include thinking/learning like an engineer AND practicing the design cycle I was hooked on the thought of getting some Sugru, teaching a unit on materials science engineering around it, and letting them engineer their own solutions (the folks overseas call these fix-its "hacks").

Here's how it's gone so far:

In early January I introduced the topic of materials science with some goofy commentary on how you wouldn't want a concrete sweater or a bridge made out of marshmallows. How materials react under stress and temperature is a key concern for an engineer. We covered stress, strain and their correct units and looked at how a stress vs. strain graph might give us helpful data. After an overview of elastic, plastic and brittle characteristics, the students used cans of various weights to squash marshmallows, clay and lego towers. They measured the amount of deformation, calculated and plotted points for their stress-strain curves, and made estimates as to which material belonged in which category.
(Marshmallows were a tricky substance since I had mini ones and needed to smash them together to make a marsh-ball. I didn't use any water to goo it because that would have changed the elastic properties.)

The following week we covered what polymers are and named common polymers such as rubber, PVC, stryofoam, teflon and silicone. Thanks to the Polymer Science Learning Center for many helpful resources and links for students to explore. I also introduced Sugru and briefly discussed it's properties when uncured and cured.

Rewind here: after falling in love with Sugru, I sent Jane an email with possibly the worst sales pitch of all time. "Send us some Sugru for our class or I will be forced to buy some!" I did buy some and played with it around the house, fixing and patching things, and Jane graciously agreed to send us some for this unit.

Students have brainstormed with classmates, peppered me with insightful and silly questions (Does it float? How old is Jane?) and are currently drawing a diagram of their proposed solution. This week I hand out the Sugru to students. After a week of making their hack and documenting the results each will present to the class.

I can't wait to see what they decide to do with it. I'm contemplating such hacks as safety-proofing a cabinet, modifying a game controller or attaching a lamp directly to a bedframe.

More posts to come.

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