- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2003

Materials science, or the study of stuff, takes chemists, biologists and physicists on a journey of discovery and invention in which they examine and sometimes try to enhance the 300,000 substances that make up the environment in which we live.

A 30-year-old society concerned with materials and their technological importance has put together a cyber stop to promote a traveling, interactive exhibit and also acts as the perfect online introduction into the world of stuff.

Strange Matter

Site address: www.strangematterexhibit.com

Creator: The Materials Research Society, a nonprofit scientific association in Pittsburgh, and the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto developed the site with funding provided by the National Science Foundation, Alcan Inc., Dow Chemical Co., Ford Motor Co. and the 3M Foundation.

Creator quotable: “We created this site because kids are naturally curious and get excited by doing science — they are scientists in their own right, they always want to know how things work,” says Shenda Baker, Strange Matter Project chairwoman.

“With the Strange Matter Web site, kids get to explore materials they see all the time. Created by practicing scientists and educators, the site’s science is presented in an interactive and exciting format that is fun and educational for anyone who should land on the site, young or old.”

Word from the Webwise: Four overexcited teenagers introduce visitors to fun with materials science in a photo-realistic, animated environment featuring an overload of I-didn’t-know-that facts, cartoony demonstrations and video nuggets from some of the folks in the field.

Each teen hosts a primary section that cleverly relates to an important part of the science — Zoom! (structure), Materials Smackdown (properties), The Transformer (processing) and Change-the-World Challenge (performance) — with each offering several areas of educational opportunities that touch upon the likes of polymers, composites, metals, biomaterial and semiconductors.

I most enjoyed Materials Smackdown, a wrestling challenge in which a visitor reviews four matches highlighting the tenacity of such luminaries as the Incredible Bulk (polystyrene) vs. Mr. Cheese (mozzarella) and Plastica (acrylic) vs. the Crystal Crusader (glass) as they are crushed side by side.

The events, which sound like something David Letterman might come up with, lead to teaching students about foam, the origins of material strength at the molecular level, and the cool science of cracks, and presents visitors with at-home experiments, such as making plastic and a foamy fire extinguisher.

This section featured the strangest revelation of the site. During World War II, Geoffrey Pyke invented for the Allies a durable form of ice called pykrete that contained wood pulp. Pykrete was to be used to land planes at sea in place of traditional aircraft carriers — until Winston Churchill killed the project after realizing it would take 8,000 men eight months to build a useable water runway.

I also found Change-the-World Challenge extremely interesting through its quiz-type presentation where new substances are explained. These include nano-sized buckeyballs that might one day be used to direct medications to specific areas in the body and electronic paper that can be reused by electronically erasing the print.

Visitors also will appreciate the Transformer in which they control a machine that through heat, pressure and chemical reactions changes silicon, iron and carbon into new materials, and Zoom! which provides an up-close look at aluminum at the microscopic level with discussions on microscopes and the germ-fighting properties of metals.

Ease of use: Broadband owners will most appreciate the scientific shenanigans, especially if they have the latest versions of Macromedia Flash and Adobe Acrobat plugged into their browser.

Don’t miss: An eye-opening tutorial on the making of aluminum cans can be found under the Zoom! section. As part of the presentation, a tip is offered on why heating and then eating out of a can is not a great idea. The container is lined with plastic to keep bits of aluminum away from the contents and acidic food from eroding the metal. Heating the can melts the plastic, which then ends up in your bowl of chili con carne and could cause headaches and constipation.

Family activity: Strange Matters could not have made it easier to enjoy some off-line projects through a PDF download under the Stuff for Families area, which contains eight pages of experiments in the material science arena. The whole clan can enjoy making crazy goo, ferrofluid and taking part in a scavenger hunt to understand the incredibly diverse range of materials in today’s society.

Cybersitter synopsis: An awesome immersion in the science of materials will leave students in fifth to eighth grades invigorated by its colorful presentations and loads of understandable principles and have them begging parents to find out when the Strange Matter Exhibit will be coming to their town.

Overall grade: A

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it’s accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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