Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) finds Materials Science's sweet spot
Two enterprising educators at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, USA, turn the study of Materials Science into an engaging, hands-on experience that some of their students simply call ‘amazing’.
Having spent time with the Mecmesin team and seen their material testers in action, WPI invested in three Mecmesin MultiTest 2.5-dV testers – the ideal choice for the materials testing that Dr. Cote and Grubbs had in mind.
Some undergraduate students might regard their Materials Science classes as somewhat of a tedious affair. But if you have the good fortune of attending Danielle Cote and Jack Grubbs’ classes at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Worcester, MA, USA, nothing could be further from the truth.
These two enterprising educators have turned the study of Materials Science into an engaging, hands-on experience that some of their students simply call ‘amazing’.
Dr. Cote is Assistant Professor and Harold L. Jurist ’61 and Heather E. Jurist Dean’s Professor of Materials Science & Engineering, with a joint position in the Chemical Engineering Department, and Mr. Grubbs is a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant (TA) for the course.
What’s their secret?
“Prior to joining our class, most of our students had no actual experience with materials testing, apart from what they saw in a textbook. But only showing someone on paper what a tensile test looks like, is far less effective than physically demonstrating a test. So we had the idea to use food and some actual materials testers to help the students relate to the discipline, a natural extension of the project-based learning integrated across a WPI education,” explains Dr. Cote.
Whether it was Oreos, pretzels, Twizzlers or gummies – all became fair game in their Introduction to Materials Science class. “Say, for example, we were looking at stress-strain behavior, we would take jelly gummies and get the students to pull them apart using their hands, noting how they changed with applied stresses - much like a polymer would. Then, we’d take pretzel sticks and test its response to stress, which naturally are very different to the gummies – you can relate it more to how a metal or a ceramic would behave. The students enjoyed it, especially because they could snack on their test samples. But, before we acquired the Mecmesin MultiTest (universal testing machines), we still lacked accurate, repeatable data,” says Grubbs.
Students meet the Mecmesin MultiTest
Having spent time with the Mecmesin team and seen their material testers in action, WPI opted to invest in three Mecmesin MultiTest 2.5-dV testers. These cost-effective motorized force testers are transformed into material testers with the help of an enhanced load sensor, Mecmesin’s versatile VectorPro MT software, and an optional extensometer – making it the ideal choice for the materials testing that Dr. Cote and Grubbs had in mind.
“Now we could bring these testers into the classroom and get students to setup their own tests. For example, using these gummy worms with ridges, students could predict where they would break when pulled, compared to how stress concentrations would actually affect where and how cracks formed. Students even started testing different colored Airheads against each other. Because one of the students theorized that the different colors might not all respond the same, we tested it - confirming that the chemicals in the dye absolutely did affect how each would behave under stress. Not only are we doing the physical tests now, but we also have real time data to back up our findings. It contextualises everything,” states Dr. Cote.
...VectorPro MT's drag-and-drop interface enables students to create everything from complex materials testing procedures to simple product testing. Within 5 to 10 minutes, students can change the fixtures and setup their own tests in the software—it is really simple.
Dr Danielle Cote, Assistant Professor, Materials Science & Engineering
Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), MA USA
She adds that the Mecmesin testers lend themselves to the learning environment within which they function. As there is no laboratory associated with the undergraduate Materials Science classes, all ‘hands-on’ teaching needs to happen in the standard classrooms. “The MultiTest is the perfect size, easy to transport and operate on a small table – you don’t need a huge amount of space. And VectorPro MT's drag-and-drop interface enables students to create everything from complex materials testing procedures to simple product testing. Within 5 to 10 minutes, students can change the fixtures and setup their own tests in the software—it is really simple.”
The 3-Point Bend test goes to Summer School
Both Dr. Cote and Grubbs agree that one of the highlights of their year is the Materials Science summer course for high school students, where they had students design their own candy composites. “We’d melt chocolate chips to serve as the ‘matrix phase’, then give the students an array of filler ‘strengthening phases’ to add to their chocolate to make a composite. Pretzel sticks and spaghetti modelled fibers, coconut shreds and rice crispies were used for particle reinforcements—you name it, they tried it. Then, we took their composite chocolate bars and did 3-point bend tests to see which was the strongest. We turned it into a friendly competition where each student designed their own composite to achieve the highest flexural strength,” explains Grubbs.
“You’d be listening to the spaghetti snap and see it reflected on the graph. It is such an immersive experience for the students and holds real-world application, contributing to a transformative experience in the classroom.”
As a company, we want to take an active role in equipping the up-and-coming leaders of the US technical industry. That is why we work with technical programs to build this next generation of technical students.
Rod Ansari, VP of Sales (Americas)
“The use of our Mecmesin testers at WPI is just so inspirational, we really feel privileged to play a small part in such innovative teaching. As a company, we want to take an active role in equipping the up-and-coming leaders of the US technical industry. That is why we work with technical programs to build this next generation of technical students – our industry, and frankly the whole country, depends on it,” comments Rod Ansari, VP of Sales at the PPT Group.