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A Project in Engineering Design and Materials Science

The STEAMpunk Club at Walden School of Liberal Arts

The STEAMpunk Club at Walden School of Liberal Arts

I am a pack rat. I grew up with my grandparents living next door in my hometown of Deseret, Utah. Both my parents and grandparents lived through the Great Depression and never wanted to throw anything away. Anything that could be salvaged and re-tasked or reused was kept in case it might come in handy later.

This is Herbie the Head, my first junk sculpture. It's a bit the worse for time. The frame is made of welded plastic girders. The neck and support are the rocket nozzle and heat shield of an Apollo space capsule.

This is Herbie the Head, my first junk sculpture. It’s a bit the worse for time. The frame is made of welded plastic girders. The neck and support are the rocket nozzle and heat shield of an Apollo space capsule.

I have the same compulsion, only in my case I collect objects that are clearly past being useful for their original purpose. In other words, I collect junk. But I’ve done some things with it, including making sculptures from the junk. This started during the summer after I graduated from high school. I went on a long wilderness trek wearing old boots. The trek included a 25-mile hike during a single day and night, and by the time I finally got to camp I had 16 blisters on my feet and toes. By the time I got home again, I had to take a few days off from walking or wearing shoes to let all of these blisters heal.

Philo the Robot, named for Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. He needs some repairs.

Philo the Robot, named for Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. He needs some repairs.

I decided to spend the time making something fun out of my old model kits that had all fallen apart but which I hadn’t thrown away. These included everything from a funky bathtub car to a five-foot model of a Saturn V rocket. I took the girders that held the plastic parts and used a candle to melt them together to form the frame of a head, then glued in parts and other interesting objects. The end result was rather fun, and I called the junk head “Herbie” after the Love Bug in the old Disney movies. I decided (over my mom’s protests) to enter the sculpture in the county fair. It won a sweepstakes prize!

Looking through junk, coming up with ideas.

Looking through junk, coming up with ideas.

(I met one of the judges several years later who admitted to me that they didn’t have any idea what category this sculpture was supposed to be in, so they figured it had to be the best in whatever category it was. Hence the sweepstakes ribbon. So much for my artistic ego!)

Demolishing used electronics, including old VCRs, DVD players, phones, remote controls, and calculators.

Demolishing used electronics, including old VCRs, DVD players, phones, remote controls, and calculators.

With that bit of undeserved encouragement, I continued to build other sculptures, including a robot (Philo), a three-legged dog, even a working lamp which tripped the circuit breaker the first time I turned it on. I’ve kept the robot in repair, mostly, but the others have fallen apart due to the deterioration of the glue from UV light. Yet I’ve kept all the parts.

Assembling the junk using engineering and material science knowledge.

Assembling the junk using engineering and material science knowledge.

It occurred to me last fall, as I was starting up the STEM-Arts Alliance project at Walden School, that it might be fun to teach a junk sculpture class for our Intersession program. We take two weeks between third and fourth terms to teach specialty classes. So I got approval and wrote up a description and had about ten students sign up. I bought some tools and various glues, nuts, bolts, screws, etc. and carried all my boxes of junk into school. It was quite the collection by now.

Soldering pieces together

Soldering pieces together

Although this is essentially an art project, I knew that it also tested one’s ability to attach and adapt different objects made from widely different materials. In other words, this was really a material science and engineering project. The students looked through the junk, came up with ideas, and were required to plan and sketch out their designs, including how they planned to attach the parts together. They had to use secure fasteners such as nuts and bolts for any load bearing members.

Small sculptures created by students at Walden School.

Small sculptures created by students at Walden School.

The end results were well done, and those that did the most planning were the most successful. We used drills, saws, Dremmel tools, soldering irons, hot glue guns, epoxy, and other materials to cut and adapt parts, then fasten them together.

A robot created by a student from found and re-tasked objects.

A robot created by a student from found and re-tasked objects.

Even after having ten students built projects, I still had junk left. In fact, it seemed I had more than when I started. I had kept all my old broken VCRs and DVDs, telephones and calculators, and other electronic junk, which the students tore apart. There is some fascinating stuff in there. So I decided to try the class again as a fall after school club. I named it the STEAMpunk Club, which I thought was a nice play on words.

Some of the final sculptures by the Junk Art class at Walden School.

Some of the final sculptures by the Junk Art class at Walden School.

Our objective was to build steampunk goggles and other costume items for Halloween. I went to dollar stores and hardware stores looking for possibilities for objects that could be re-tasked. Princess tiaras and canning jar rings became telephoto lenses, and old softballs became leather eyepieces. We added gear decorations and plastic parts that had been spray painted silver and gold. I also found a black derby hat for cheap in a discount store and tied my elaborate goggles to it with safety pins. I also made a second, less ornate set of goggles. I wore these with my old black coat and completed a pretty good steampunk costume. The next time ComicCon comes to town, I’ll be ready. The students came up with interesting goggles and props of their own, and even a few more junk sculptures.

Steampunk goggles I made for the STEAMpunk Club

Steampunk goggles I made for the STEAMpunk Club

I have planned out a larger sculpture for my classroom, another robot that will stand about three feet tall and have a framework or core of glued, spray-painted PVC pipe for strength and structure. I have collected all the parts, and hope to complete him sometime in the spring when my workshop warms up again.

My Halloween steampunk costume, plus a monster.

My Halloween steampunk costume, plus a monster.

Maybe by next summer I will have exorcised this current drive to make junk sculptures. I seem to vibrate between several modes or interests, including science, history, and art. Lately, I’ve been in an art mode, which is why I decided to initiate the STEM-Arts Alliance in the first place; it would give me a chance to do all the things I love. It’s been fun so far, and I think my students have responded well and enjoyed the crossover opportunities. I know these projects are a bit idiosyncratic and won’t generalize to most teacher’s classrooms, but then again, maybe someone out there can use this idea to their own advantage. I’d love to hear what you come up with.

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My summer this year was mostly taken up with astronomy related activities. I flew on SOFIA (see my other blog: spacedoutclass.com) and took an astrobiology workshop at the Great Salt Lake to study extremophiles in June, then spent most of July writing up my experiences and archiving the SOFIA video clips. But during the first week in August, I did return to chemistry and the elements as I participated in a materials science workshop offered by ASM, the materials science association of America (yes, I know, the acronym doesn’t fit. It used to be the American Society of Metallurgists, but has grown to include all material sciences, so now it’s just ASM International). I had heard of these workshops before, and this is the first time they’ve been offered in Utah. When the announcement went out from the Utah State Office of Education, I signed up immediately.

Weber State University campus seen from the science building

Weber State University campus seen from the science building

The workshop was held at Weber State University in Ogden. I couldn’t attend the one at BYU because I was in Palmdale flying on SOFIA that week. Even though it was a bit of a drive to go up to Ogden for five days, I did manage to carpool the last three days with two other teachers from Utah Valley, and we had some good conversations while driving up and back. We met at the Park and Ride at Thanksgiving Point each morning. One was a middle school science teacher in Alpine, the other a Technology teacher at the Nebo Learning Center in Springville. Other teachers in the workshop ranged from chemistry teachers (and a WSU chemistry professor) to industrial arts teachers doing Project Lead the Way. Getting to know the other teachers is always a highlight of attending these workshops.

Teachers in the ASM Materials Science workshop at WSU

Teachers in the ASM Materials Science workshop at WSU

The course was taught by Becky Heckman, who teaches materials science courses at an International Baccalaureate school in Princeton, Ohio outside Cincinnati; and by David McGibney, a teacher from Sammimish, Washington. He was also a finalist in the original Teacher in Space program. A third teacher, Chris Miedema, from Ottawa, Canada also helped out as an ASM trainee teacher. All three have been through these workshops before and have received additional training to present them, traveling to several locations each summer for a week at a time.

Weber State University chemistry lab, with Dr. Donaldson and his wife.

Weber State University chemistry lab, with Dr. Donaldson and his wife.

The course was divided up into sections by the types of materials, with an overview on Monday. We looked at the properties of metals, ceramics, glass, composites, and polymers and alternated our time between in-class discussions and demonstrations and lab activities. We were in the current WSU science building (a new one is being built) and used the chemistry lab upstairs. Some of the labs I’ve done before, such as the activity series of the elements, but we did them in new ways or from different perspectives. Most of the labs will be directly useful in my chemistry class this year. A few use equipment that will require some grants to get, such as a small kiln for raku pottery that runs about $800. They provided some starter materials, such as a bag of sodium polyacrylate and some metal electrode kits, that were given by various chemical companies.

Testing the Reactivity of Metals in Copper Sulfate Solution.

Testing the Reactivity of Metals in Copper Sulfate Solution.

Workshop Highlights:

Activity Series with Copper: We used plastic bottle performs instead of test tubes to test various metals in a solution of copper sulfate, then observed the differences in reactivity. This is a variation of the Activity Series of Metals lab, but is presented as an excellent inquiry/discovery lab. I’ll use this during my second semester as we talk about reactivity and reaction types, leading into my lab on copper compounds.

Borax glass beads. The green beads are on nichrome wire, the blue beads on copper wire.

Borax glass beads. The green beads are on nichrome wire, the blue beads on copper wire.

Borax Glass Beads: We had two types of wire, nichrome and copper, bent into small loops. We heated up the loops in a torch flame, then dipped them into a cup with borax powder, then heated it again, until a bead of vitrified borax formed in the loop. The nichrome bead was green, the copper wire bead was blue. It took some practice not to get too much borax on the loop, so that it didn’t drip into the torch burner.

Metal Activities. From Bottom clockwise: A penny squished through a stretching machine, tin and bismuth alloy buttons, tin splotches and shreaking tin, pennies turned to "silver" and "gold."

Metal Activities. From Bottom clockwise: A penny squished through a stretching machine, tin and bismuth alloy buttons, tin splotches and shreaking tin, pennies turned to “silver” and “gold.”

The Alchemist’s Dream: We did a variation on the old “turning copper into gold” lab that didn’t require pre-1982 pennies (which were made of pure copper). This one uses a solution of zinc powder and sodium hydroxide, just like the other version, but deposits the zinc onto the copper using electroplating. A zinc electrode is in the solution is attached to the positive lead, and the penny is placed inside a plastic spoon with holes in it and touched with a copper wire attached to the negative lead. The zinc appears instantly. It is less dangerous than heating up the zinc-lye solution, and the zinc layer is more even, producing a better-looking golden penny when heated up on a hot plate. I’ve already done this lab in my chemistry class this year with excellent results.

Playing with starch and water solution at the ASM camp.

Playing with starch and water solution at the ASM camp.

Thixatropic vs. Dilatant Solutions: We did the old cornstarch and water oobleck lab (outside, as this is very messy) but looked at it from the perspective of thixatropic (adding shear force or shaking makes the solution less viscous, such as shaking a catsup bottle) versus dilatant (pronounced “die-laa-tant”), where shear forces make the solution more rigid, such as the starch-water solution. These are both examples of non-Newtonian fluids.

Making sulfur allotropes. We did this outside because of the smell.

Making sulfur allotropes. We did this outside because of the smell.

Sulfur Allotropes: Heating sulfur flowers until it turns orange, then carefully pouring into water produces a rubbery form of sulfur. Depending on the temperature and how quickly it is heated, sulfur has several allotropes. We also produced sulfur crystals.

Crystal Bead Boards: Taking a DVD case and filling with small plastic beads, then taping it together to make a single layer. These beads can be shaken to illustrate crystal lattices and imperfections, such as linear cleavage planes, vacancies, etc. Mixing two colors of beads or even two sizes of beads can show substitutional and interstitial alloy structures.

Sir Ken Robinson TED Talk: A very provocative and inspirational talk on the nature of learning and education that all teachers should watch (all students for that matter). Here’s the link: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html.

Annealing, Quenching, and Tempering: We heated bobby pins and paper clips (having different levels of carbon in the steel) and tested how easy it was to break them after they had been annealed, quenched, and tempered. Then we learned the differences in crystal structure. A good introductory discovery lab, with inquiry, that I had never seen before.

Tin splotches, made by dripping melted tin onto a steel plate.

Tin splotches, made by dripping melted tin onto a steel plate.

Tin and Bismuth Alloys: We made a series of buttons of different percentages of tin and bismuth metals melted together. We then tested their melting points to see where the eulectic point (alloy with lowest melting point) was. This was at about 58% bismuth to tin.

Steel Wool in Vinegar: We placed steel wool in a small Erlenmeyer flask with vinegar and salt water, then placed a balloon over the mouth of the flask. We measured the temperature of the solution every ten minutes with a laser thermometer (I had never seen these before – pretty slick!) We were asked to predict what would happen with the balloon – would it inflate or deflate? We also did a corrosion lab with steel wool in water, salt water, hydrogen peroxide, and a combination and compared reaction rates.

Polyurethane foam mushrooms colored with food coloring.

Polyurethane foam mushrooms colored with food coloring.

Thomas Thwaites video: A Welsh man received a grant to see if he could build a toaster from scratch, based on a quote from Mostly Harmless, the fifth book in the Hitchhikers series by Douglas Adams. Arthur Dent, who seems to have trouble hanging onto his towel, has landed on a primitive world where he assumes he will soon be in charge due to his advanced 20th century scientific knowledge. He soon discovers, however, that he doesn’t even have the skills necessary to build his own toaster. He can barely manage to make a passable sandwich. Thwaites decided to put the idea to the test; he took apart a toaster and catalogued the parts, then collected all the raw materials needed to build one himself. He had to melt the metal (which he got at an iron mine), create the plastic (he used potato starch, but snails ate it, and British Petroleum wouldn’t give him a jug of crude oil. He finally had to “mine” the plastic from a garbage dump), and he eventually got a crude toaster that lasted a few seconds before burning out. Here is the link to that video: http://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_thwaites_how_i_built_a_toaster_from_scratch.html.

Plastics Labs: We made polyurethane foam plastic, both rigid and flexible. We also made large clothespins, shrinky dinks (plastic cups painted with Sharpie pens, then melted in a toaster oven), a latex ball (although mine looked like a brain more than a ball), and a homemade Styrofoam shape from a mold and polystyrene pellets.

Shrinky dinks. The disk on the left was a #6 recyclable plastic cup colored by Sharpie permanent markers, then heated in a toaster oven. It shrank down to its original size before plastic forming.

Shrinky dinks. The disk on the left was a #6 recyclable plastic cup colored by Sharpie permanent markers, then heated in a toaster oven. It shrank down to its original size before plastic forming.

Making Models of Composites: We created “diving boards” out of foamcore wrapped with tape, then tested their elasticity and Young’s Modulus. We also made “hockey pucks” from cement mixed with plastic Easter grass as a reinforcer, then dropped the pucks from different heights to compare reinforced vs. non-reinforced concrete. The reinforced cement held up to stresses and did not shatter as the non-reinforced cement did.

Bending a large pipe at the CBI plant. The glowing band is where the pipe is heated by electric current induction, then bent by the machine at right. Water is sprayed on the already bent portion to prevent over bending.

Bending a large pipe at the CBI plant. The glowing band is where the pipe is heated by electric current induction, then bent by the machine at right. Water is sprayed on the already bent portion to prevent over bending.

Tour of CBI Pipe Bending Plant: On Thursday, we carpooled over to a subsidiary of CBI Pipe and Supply in west Ogden that bends large pipes for oil or gas pipelines. The pipes are manufactured straight, but there are times when pipelines have to bend, so this company does the bends. The pipes are extruded and heated using electrical current at a very thin line as a large machine pulls the pipes around at a specific angle. Except for the thin band of heated pipe, the rest is cooled with a water jet. We were shown all through the plant, including how the pipes are tested for strength and shear stress in a lab, how they are annealed in an oven, and how they are painted. Some of the pipes we saw being bent were four feet in diameter.

Testing metal samples from the original pipes to determine strength, elasticity, etc.

Testing metal samples from the original pipes to determine strength, elasticity, etc.

Raku Pottery: This was the most complex thing we did, but also the most interesting from a chemistry perspective. We used a special type of ceramic clay, with higher sand content than usual, to shape small pinch pots. A small 120 volt electric kiln was purchased for this workshop, and the pots were fired in it during the first two days. Then we put glazes made of metal oxides onto the bisque ware and fired it to 900°. On Friday, as our final activity, we took the pots out of the kiln while still hot and placed them into new paint cans filled with shredded newspaper. As the pots hit the paper, it burst into flames. The lid was then placed on the paint can to smother the flames. As the oxygen in the can is used up, the flames pull oxygen away from the metal oxide glaze, reducing it back to a metal. The pots come out with metallic shines. I experimented with various glazes and layering colors on top of each other. My best results were with red copper oxide, tin oxide, and silver oxide glazes. Chromium oxide stayed green and cobalt oxide stayed blue. Tin started pink but turned silvery. Copper went from pinkish to coppery metal, and silver from bluish green to silver-white.

Removing the glowing red Raku pots from the kiln.

Removing the glowing red Raku pots from the kiln.

These were just a few of the things we did over five days. The workshop has already been extremely useful for me, and I plan to incorporate more of the ideas and activities into my other courses this coming semester. We received a large booklet with lesson plans as well as a DVD. Perhaps I will even propose a semester-long materials science course for next year at Walden School. We ended the workshop on Friday with a nice banquet at the student union building at WSU and were addressed by a colonel in the Air Force at Hill Air Force Base, one of the cosponsors of this workshop.

Some of the finished Raku pots. Mine is on the right. It's not as nice as others because I experimented with layering glaze colors.

Some of the finished Raku pots. Mine is on the right. It’s not as nice as others because I experimented with layering glaze colors.

Raku pot using copper oxide glaze, which reduced to a copper metal shine.

Raku pot using copper oxide glaze, which reduced to a copper metal shine.

Teachers at the ASM workshop banquet, Friday, August 9, 2013.

Teachers at the ASM workshop banquet, Friday, August 9, 2013.

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