Intercom Online......October 29, 1998

Highlight on Undergraduate Education

Erie takes different approach
to teaching students about polymers

Quick, look around. How many items within your reach are made of plastic? Probably a lot of them. Because so many things are made from plastics today, it's important for designers and manufacturers to know exactly what goes into that useful material that we've all come to take for granted.

"If you're molding plastics," said Richard Progelhof, director of Penn State Erie's School of Engineering and Engineering Technology, "you not only need to know about molds, you need to know a lot about the polymer, the material you're molding."

Progelhof, along with students and professors in the plastics engineering technology program at Penn State Erie, asked Mary Chisholm, associate professor of chemistry in Penn State Erie's School of Science, to develop a polymer course.

"The plastics engineering students used to learn the basics of polymers from their engineering technology professors," said Chisholm. "Now they are learning polymer chemistry from a chemist, and approaching polymers as a scientist would."

Chisholm felt the plastics students might be uncomfortable if placed into a traditional science classroom setting, so she opted to develop the course, Introduction to Polymers, as a computer course.

"Students already have computer skills," said Chisholm, "so they are much more amenable to learning that way."

In teaching she uses a software package called SciPolymer/Alchemy, which links a database of more than 600 polymers with a molecular drawing and modeling program. In the database, students learn about the properties of molecules: their shape, structure, stress, strain, bonding and energy. Students can bring any one of the polymers into the drawing and modeling program, where they can manipulate the molecule, changing its structure, and therefore, its properties.

The final exam includes a design project in which Chisholm asks each student to create a new polymer that can be effectively and efficiently used to manufacture something useful.

"Students have designed polymers to be used for golf tees, plastic fishing lures, football helmets, coffee mugs, beer bottles, automotive parts and any number of unusual items," said Chisholm.

Roger Knacke, director of the School of Science, said Chisholm's approach to polymers is a nontraditional way of teaching chemistry.

"Most teaching begins at the atomic level and works up to bigger molecules," he said. "This course starts with polymers, which are very big molecules, and works back to the atomic level. But the method is excellent for these students, because almost all of them have very good visual and computer skills."

"The trick is to teach students to think at the molecular level, which is very difficult for many of them because they have already handled these materials in the lab," she said. "They don't think of them as having a micro-structure which controls properties."

Chisholm is the 1998 recipient of the Penn State Erie Council of Fellows Research Award, and previously received the Council of Fellows Teaching Award.

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