High School Students Learn About the Science of Polymers at UMass Amherst

AMHERST, Mass. - Ten high school students from Amherst, Northampton, and Springfield are spending alternate Saturday mornings conducting scientific experiments on polymers at the University of Massachusetts. The project, dubbed ASPIRE (A Student-led Polymer Introductory Research Experience) has high-schoolers working in laboratories with doctoral candidates and professors from the polymer science and engineering (PSE) department.

"Plastic is another name for polymers," explained graduate student Jennifer David of the PSE Club, which is spearheading the effort. "The soles of your shoes, the partitions around the hockey rink, your eyeglasses or contact lenses, maybe even the chair you’re sitting on, are made of polymers." There are natural polymers as well, she said, ranging from wood, silk, and spiderwebs to DNA. In scientific terms, polymers are long chains of molecules made up of smaller units called "repeat units." If you picture a polymer as a paper-clip chain, the polymer would have between 100 to a million "paper clips."

The students conduct experiments in which they create, or synthesize, new polymers. They also study the polymers’ molecular structure, chemistry, and characteristics, such as strength, brittleness, and elasticity. The experiments are anything but staid, David said: a synthesis experiment has students creating a gooey, transparent "slime." Another explores the concept of the "glassification of rubber" by freezing a rubber ball in liquid nitrogen, then shattering it. Discussions ensure that the students will comprehend what their results mean, said David. "It’s not a magic show; they need to understand what they’re doing." Polymer science gives students a taste of various scientific disciplines including chemistry, physics, and engineering, she noted. (A separate program, also led by the PSE Club, brings polymer scientists into local schools.)

The students were chosen for ASPIRE on the basis of their interest in science, with an eye toward physics and chemistry, David said. The program is free to participants. The high school students carry out experiments using high-tech equipment at the University, including a gel permeation chromatography instrument, which determines how many units make up a polymer chain, and a scanning electron microscope, which enables students to look at the surface of their samples at magnifications of more than 100,000 times. "It’s great to be able to share our enthusiasm with young people who may be deciding on their careers," said David. "We have a chance to be there at the right time in their lives, and be that spark that encourages them to have a career in science."