You are here

The Miracle of Materials


During the months of January through March 2011, the Ames Laboratory took its show on the road, so to speak, as a coalition partner in the nationally acclaimed “Making Stuff” program.

Image“Making Stuff” is a four-part PBS prime-time television series from the award-winning producers of NOVA, developed in partnership with the Materials Research Society (MRS).  The four parts of the series entitled, Stronger, Smaller, Cleaner and Smarter, present dramatic stories about the materials that are transforming our world.  “Making Stuff” shows how materials have changed history and are continuing to shape our future.

Ames Laboratory was one of only 20 sites nationwide selected to be “Making Stuff” coalition partners with an additional 10-15 sites holding outreach events.  To become a coalition member, the Lab wrote a proposal, which included finding partner organizations willing to cooperate on “Making Stuff” educational outreach events.   Some of those partners included the Science Center of Iowa, Iowa State University’s (ISU) Science Bound program, Valley West Mall, the Ames Public Library, the NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals, Ames and Des Moines public schools, and the ISU chapters of the MRS and Material Advantage.

In addition to its status as a coalition partner, the Ames Laboratory had another claim to fame in connection with the “Making Stuff” series.  Director Alex King was on the board that helped envision and develop the “Making Stuff” concept, and his name appears in the credits for each of the four series presentations.

Image Image Image Image
1. High-school students race to assemble mock transistors on a circuit board while experiencing the difference between macro-, micro-, and nanoscale.  2. Ames Lab Director Alex King explains the unique materials in the guitars in his collection.  3. Elementary school students experiment with tessellations at Sawyer Elementary during their annual Science Night.  4. Cynthia Feller applies a “Making Stuff” temporary tattoo during the Fellows Elementary Science Night.

“Obviously, being a materials scientist myself, I welcomed the opportunity to be part of something that would better inform the public about the importance materials play in our everyday world,” says King.  “The additional opportunity to have the Ames Laboratory be part of the overall outreach campaign became an added and much-desired benefit.”  

King, himself, gave a Café Scientifique presentation for the Science Center of Iowa, entitled “Bizarre Guitars,” in which he shared his collection of new and vintage guitars and described some of the unusual choices of materials that guitar makers have used over the years and why some of those choices were better than others.  

The Lab’s first major “Making Stuff” outreach event was held Jan. 19 at the Science Center of Iowa. Director King helped kick off the national campaign in Iowa by introducing the first “Making Stuff” program, Stronger, and then viewed it with an eager crowd at the Science Center.  Following the program, kids and adults participated in a number of science outreach activities on materials.  

Another outreach event sponsored in partnership between the Ames Laboratory and the Science Center of Iowa was a Café Scientifique presentation given by Tom Lograsso, division director of the Lab’s Materials Sciences and Engineering program.  Lograsso’s presentation on rare-earth materials was entitled, “Rare earths: What’s the Attraction?”  The event was held at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in West Des Moines.  

“We couldn’t have asked for a more interested and attentive audience,” says Lograsso, whose interactive and fun presentation showcasing the power of neodymium-iron-boron magnets was an instant crowd favorite.  “People were very interested in learning everything they could about rare-earth materials, especially since they have been in the news so much of late.  It was a pleasure to share information with them on the impactful research going on at the Ames Laboratory in the rare-earth area.”   

In addition to Lograsso’s and King’s presentations, the ISU chapters of the MRS and Material Advantage clubs provided hands-on science activities, many of which were provided by “Making Stuff,” for numerous interactive outreach events at the Science Center of Iowa, malls, elementary schools, libraries and other venues.  Katherine Ament, ISU MRS club president and a graduate research assistant in Materials Science and Engineering at ISU working for Karl Gschneidner Jr., Ames Laboratory senior metallurgist, served as the main coordinator of the Lab’s “Making Stuff” science-outreach activities.  She organized over 20 events, featuring interactive activities that ranged from demonstrating the strength of neodymium-iron-boron magnets to testing the tensile strength of different materials, such as cotton, nylon and Kevlar.  The activities were a delight for audiences that ranged from elementary and high-school students to scientists and the public.  

Image Image Image Image
5. ”Making Stuff” Episodes were viewed over the noon hour at Ames Lab on Wednesdays in Februrary.  6. Café Scientifique speaker Tom Lograsso entertains an audience with information about rare-earth materials in the Barnes and Noble bookstore in West Des Moines, Iowa.  7. ISU materials engineering student Alexandra Bruce announces the “Making Stuff” activity table during the Valley West Mall Family Night.  8. The Instant Cheese Bioplastic demonstration gives young scientists a squishy introduction to polymers.

“Although each and every activity was received well, we knew we were making an impact when the audience members were smiling and asking questions about our activities and the science behind them,” says Ament.  “Our volunteers were appreciative of the opportunity to inspire others and see children become excited about science.  They also felt the ‘Making Stuff’ campaign really shed light on the importance of materials and materials science to Iowans.”

Overall, “Making Stuff” was a huge success for NOVA, according to Jennifer Larese, NOVA Education and Outreach department coordinator.  Segments of the programs appeared on five national television programs, like “CBS Sunday Morning” and “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.”  The series was also a ratings giant for NOVA, with ratings surpassing the season average by 38 percent.

 “As part of the NOVA Education and Outreach department, we are so pleased with the results from all of our ‘Making Stuff’ coalitions.  These sites, including the Ames Laboratory, generated enthusiasm and interest around materials science by planning events and activities to engage a wide variety of audiences around the January 2011 broadcast,” says Larese.

NOVA’s online sites also experienced a major boost as a result of the series.  Overall internet traffic was up by 23 percent, while the number of unique visitors to the NOVA site jumped a whopping 56 percent.  In addition, NOVA’s Facebook and Twitter sites experienced 15 percent increases in traffic.

And the recognition of the program’s impact and influence does not end there.  According to the manager of Education and Outreach for MRS Richard Souza, the fact that the “Making Stuff” series reached a total of 14.6 million television viewers, with one episode registering the highest Nielsen rating for NOVA in over four years, is a clear indication of the public’s appetite for science information.  

“The results from surveys taken of participants by coalition members will give the MRS important information about what the public liked and disliked,” Souza says, “but it’s obvious  MRS and other scientific organizations have an opportunity through programs like “Making Stuff” to broaden the public’s understanding of science and should take advantage of it.”  
Does that mean there will be a round two of “Making Stuff?” “I’ve heard a follow-up series mentioned twice now,” says Larese, “but the jury is still out.”

Image Image Image Image
9. Director Alex King introduces tessellations to a captivated audience at an elementary school science night.  10, 11, 12. The Spoon Drop Strength Test activity was completed by kids of all ages. During this activity, a teaspoon was dropped from various heights to test the toughness of common household materials, such as aluminum foil, newspaper and plastic wrap.