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Online science outreach helps fill a void during COVID-19 quarantine

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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Penn State’s Center for Nanoscale Science releases a new website full of family-friendly, at-home science experiments

With families stuck at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, the need for quality online resources to help fill the time has skyrocketed. But don’t fret — Penn State’s Center for Nanoscale Science has just launched Mission: Materials Science.

“People are looking for simple, engaging activities to do with their kids at home, and that’s exactly what this is,” says Kristin Dreyer, the center’s director for education and outreach. “Everything is meant to be do it yourself, at home, with things that you can find pretty easily in your house or kitchen.”

The Mission: Materials Science website displayed on a smartphone
IMAGE: Penn State

Developed in partnership with The Franklin Institute, the site explores materials science through a combination of interactive, guided experiments and short video stories told by scientists about related research — all targeted to children ages 8–13, and (of course) their siblings and parents.

The story clips feature materials scientists from the Center for Nanoscale Science — Penn State’s National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) — and Cal State LA, a partner institution to Penn State through the NSF’s Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) program. The experiments also contain a video component, featuring high school-aged volunteers from The Franklin Institute who explain each activity step by step, hopefully inspiring kids to want to do them on their own.

“Our partnership with The Franklin Institute has actually been going on since the early 2000s,” Dreyer said. “At that time, it was not a common trend for university research centers to partner with a museum, so we were among the early promoters.”

Over the years, the Center for Nanoscale Science and The Franklin Institute have worked together to design a series of popular museum kits — for hands-on demonstrations guided by a docent — that would eventually become the basis for many of the activities on the Mission: Materials Science site.

“The question became, ‘In what new and novel way can we utilize the strengths we've already established doing these kits? How can we build upon that successful foundation?’” Dreyer explains. “The website is really just a new way of delivering engaging activities that kids can enjoy.”

The site currently hosts eight activities, each typically 20–30 minutes long, presented in three “phases.” In the first phase, “Break Down,” participants learn about the atoms and molecules that make up all materials. In the second phase, “Build Up,” they examine how different assembly methods can alter a material’s final properties. And in the third phase, “Control,” they discover how scientists manipulate even the tiniest bits of matter. Each activity is led by a high school student and followed up by a real-life materials scientist explaining the concepts through their own research. 

Looking ahead, the center is developing more material for the site in collaboration with another PREM partner, North Carolina Central University, as well as another MRSEC — the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter — at the University of Pennsylvania.

“There’s a personal tie there,” Dreyer says. “Tom Mallouk, our former chemistry department head moved to Penn. So we‘ve partnered with his group along with Penn’s MRSEC. We are also fortunate that North Carolina Central University and Cal State LA both chose the Penn State MRSEC as their PREM partner, and both were successfully awarded these prestigious NSF grants. The website project is a great opportunity to collaborate externally to develop several new activities, which we hope to post to the site by early fall.”

As COVID-19 quarantines are lifted and social distancing requirements relaxed, Dreyer also hopes to take graduate students from Penn State’s MRSEC out into the community to help promote the site through in-person outreach efforts. In the meantime, she’s already been in touch with a number of local outreach partners to spread the word — after all, the activities are perfect for doing at home, while sheltering in place. 

“We really want to get this out to the public, to parents and kids, to spark their interest and engagement with science,” she says. “The present circumstances are something you would never wish for, but if our efforts can be helpful to caregivers, educators, and summer programs, I'm excited that the site is now a ready resource for inspiring kids to explore materials science.”