STEM Tuesday– Material Science– Writing Tips and Resources

Materials Science is a new category for me. My research turned up intriguing connections with arts activities because much of it is about discoveries. So, this blog post is about some Very New research on materials and a Very Old technique for science exploration that is wonderfully flexible, easy and inexpensive, and makes use of recycled and sustainable materials.Neri Oxman photo

I was particularly pleased to find the Very New in the work of Neri Oxman. She blurs the line between science and design. Wikipedia describes her work as “embodying environmental design and digital morphogenesis*, with shapes and properties that are determined by their context.” Yes*, I had to look it up too. It means, according to Merriam-Webster – a branch of biology that deals with the form and structure of animals and plants. There have been a number of good books on Materials Science in the previous May STEM Tuesday blogs. Ms. Oxman’s writings and articles are in anthologies and scholarly journals, so instead I have included a link to her documentary “Nature x Humanity,” with the hope that you will find her take on Materials Science to be worth following in the future.

She says that 2020 is the year in which the anthropomass (manufactured materials) will exceed the biomass on our planet. Current building practices are the main culprits. She offers alternate building materials and structures that will break down. For instance, one building material she helped to develop can be disposed of by dropping it into the sea. It will dissolve and provide nutrients for fish.

I emailed her and in her kind response, she sent a link to the documentary about sustainable architecture and protecting the earth’s resources (see below). It’s for adults and older students and very thought provoking. Imagine structures built from apple peels and shrimp shells (what do you suppose Legal Seafoods thought when she asked for all their discarded shrimp shells?). Or imagine a glass structure that can heat your home without conventional fuel, constructed on a 3D printer.

Here is the link to “Nature x Humanity.” The description says, “We are pleased to present our documentary entitled Nature x Humanity. The documentary debuts at a critical juncture when the anthropomass—the mass produced by humans—has exceeded that of the living biomass on our planet. Through the lens of five projects and their related material systems, we propose five tenets for a new Material Ecology: glass, polymers, fibers, pigments, and cellular solids. Motivated to unite the grown and the made, we demonstrate how each material system and the technology invented to shape it embodies and advances Nature’s way while continuing to promote human progress.”

I see such an imaginative approach to science as an argument in favor of including arts with the science curriculum. The processes for creativity and scientific inquiry are very similar – except creativity is much more flexible in verification. When curiosity and ideas reign without stress over outcome, the mind is freer to wander and invent. The kind of creativity that envisions new uses for alternate materials is developed though practice, making connections, and often, no stress over the outcome.

Real invention comes from dreaming and imagining.

Papier Mache Style book coverWhich brings me to the Very Old technique for science activities – papier-mâché. You might think, oh please, we did that in kindergarten. However, the technique deserves a second look in this current world where sustainability and recycling are essential. It’s inexpensive to do. It makes use of throw-away materials – newspaper (if you can find any), brown paper bags, junk mail, plastic bottles, even cloth scraps and shred.

Papier-mâché first appeared in China c. second century AD, where it was used for warrior helmets and pots. It spread along trade routes to the middle east and Europe. Lacquering and papier mâché became a popular and highly-prized art form.

Today it can be used as a great craft technique to design and create scientific models for a better classroom experience. The possibilities are endless – 3D botanical illustrations, bones, insects, display boxes, buildings. Here are some photos of one of my previous classes where we studied historic castles and made models. The students also wrote an accompanying history of their chosen castle. And you can see the imaginative recycling that engaged the students.papier mache clock

There are many recipes for mâché. My all-purpose fallback is cheap white school glue mixed 3 parts glue, 1 part water. That recipe makes a structure that is rigid. If you want flexibility (such as a book cover or mask) use Sobo Glue. I have seen others use glue made with flour, joint compound, and other materials. You can purchase ready-made “paper clay,” which is a delight to work with – and expensive. The paper clay is good for small pieces.

My standby book has been Papier Mâché Style by Alex MacCormack. (Krause Publications, 1994). There are many books available as well as websites and videos. It’s a real smorgasbord of great ideas. You really need no art experience to use papier-mâché, but need to be willing to be adventurous and persistent. And yes, it is messy and needs time to dry. But the results are well worth it.

Student papier mache castle in process. Art and design are essential for communicating science. The best content in the world is useless if nobody reads or looks at it. That means it has to be visually enticing. It also generally invites students to participate in their own learning in a more active way.


Margo Lemieux is professor emerita at Lasell University, Newton, MA. She recently helped organize an exhibit and donation of fine art prints at the DaNang Museum of Fine Arts in Vietnam.

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