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A $22.2 million grant to MIT's Center for Materials Science and Engineering is good news not only for the center but also for other MIT researchers and K-12 educational outreach programs.
The six-year grant from the National Science Foundation will support the center's three principal missions, explained Michael F. Rubner, director of the Center for Materials Science and Engineering (CMSE). "We conduct interdisciplinary research in materials science and engineering, but we also run shared experimental facilities that are available to people from around MIT," he said. In addition, "we have what I think is a very exciting educational outreach program directed at middle school and high school students and K-12 teachers."
With respect to the outreach program, Rubner said, "We're currently trying to broaden our profile to interact more with other such programs at MIT. We'd like to facilitate the efforts of others who are working with kids and teachers."
NSF awarded the grant through its Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers program. "The MRSECs are at the forefront of combining interdisciplinary, collaborative research with effective teaching and education of the wider community," said W. Lance Haworth, executive officer of NSF's Division of Materials Research, which supports the program.
CMSE has been part of the MRSEC program since 1994. This year it successfully competed in open competition for a renewal of the NSF funding. CMSE is currently the largest of the 29 centers supported by the MRSEC program. Some 40 MIT faculty from six departments are affiliated with CMSE.
CMSE research focuses on basic science and engineering problems that have potential technological significance, but may not yet be of interest to industry. "We have a long history of being an incubator for new ideas," said Rubner, the TDK Professor of Polymer Materials Science and Engineering and a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow.
The center supports five interdisciplinary research groups that bring together faculty from around the Institute. One, for example, is exploring microphotonic materials and structures. Such materials are rapidly emerging as one of the most promising platforms for future optical devices. A second group is applying fundamental materials studies to the development of a next-generation battery.
CMSE also provides seed funding for research that has the potential to redefine the direction of an existing interdisciplinary research group or lead to the creation of a completely new one. The battery group is one example of the latter.
CMSE's four shared experimental facilities are "a major and important resource at MIT," said Rubner. "Even though CMSE is devoted to materials science and engineering, our equipment is available to everyone in any discipline."
Every year some 500-800 researchers use the facilities, which focus on materials analysis, crystal growth and preparation, electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction.
For the last three summers, high school and middle school teachers have worked in MIT labs through CMSE's Materials Research Experience for Teachers program, one of several outreach initiatives sponsored by the center.
The idea is to make teachers more familiar with materials science and engineering. Equally important, said Rubner, is working with them to "figure out ways to bring what they've learned back to the classroom."
One result is the ongoing creation of six modules for the teachers to use with their students. Each module not only introduces kids to cutting-edge materials research but is also designed to complement the topics teachers are required by the state to teach.
Two modules are in the final stages of development, having been beta-tested in the classroom. The Materials Research Experience for Teachers participants who created a module on the fabrication of light-emitting thin-film devices presented the work at the 2001 annual convention of the Massachusetts Association of Teachers. A companion paper is being prepared for publication in a science education journal; eventually it will be available for download through CMSE's web site.
Kids, too, spend time at MIT through another CMSE program. For a week each summer, seventh- and eighth-grade students are introduced to materials science through a variety of hands-on activities including glass blowing, metal casting and electric circuitry.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 20, 2002.