GSC Outreach adapts to virtual format

Undeterred in their mission to teach materials science to the next generation of scientists and engineers, GSC outreach teams overcome challenges to conduct lessons virtually.
GSC Outreach adapts to virtual format

Brian Iezzi pours liquid nitrogen into a carved MSE pumpkin for some "spooky science" on phase transitions while Duncan Greeley live streams it for a 7th grade class on Nov. 2.

The Van Vlack Lab has been officially closed to visitors since March, but on Monday it hosted 32 seventh graders from Washtenaw International Middle Academy in Ypsilanti.

Virtually, that is.

The class, led by GSC Outreach, was titled "Design in Materials Science: Properties of Metals." The lesson went over how metals respond to heat and electricity and how this determines their structure and, ultimately, their properties, which are critical to the design process. 

“We utilized two live demonstrations to explain these concepts,” explained Brian Iezzi, a Ph.D. candidate in the Shtein group who organized the session. “One was passing high voltage through an iron wire (and observing a solid phase change) and the other was thermal processing (annealing, quenching, tempering) of bobby pins. We also had a bit of fun by dropping liquid nitrogen into a pumpkin and seeing how the extremely cold nitrogen actually condenses water out of the air.” 

In a normal year, GSC teams usually travel to two area schools a semester, but, with local schools not meeting in person this fall, the outreach teams faced new challenges. The first was getting lost in the shuffle as teachers scrambled to adjust their teaching to an all-online format. Not surprisingly, inviting special guests to come do outreach was not a top priority.

“Luckily, things have settled down a bit and we have been getting more teachers interested again,” Iezzi said.

Now back on teachers’ radar, the next challenge is ensuring engagement with the students in a virtual format. 

“When we are in the classroom, we are free to move around and ask questions as we are doing demonstrations,” commented Iezzi. “We have tried compensating for this by structuring the lesson to utilize moderated breakout rooms with our volunteers.”

So, for Monday’s class of 32 students, they enlisted seven additional volunteers to moderate breakout rooms and ask questions and/or lead discussion. While recruiting more volunteers has required more coordination on the organizers’ part, the reduced time commitment more than makes up for it.

“Overall, I think it is an exciting method because our biggest issue typically is getting volunteers to set aside a half - or whole - day to go out to a school,” said Iezzi. “Now, we can hop on a call for an hour from anywhere - and also to anywhere.”

For all the outreach volunteers, the reward of teaching materials science to the next generation of scientists and engineers is worth the extra effort necessary to adapt lessons to the new virtual reality. 

“It's getting our creative energy flowing trying to figure out how to create a meaningful learning experience virtually,” concluded Iezzi. “Hopefully this can help the outreach program moving forward.”