Materials Science: the science of everything

Posted: July 9, 2015 - 4:24pm

On the 50th anniversary of the first American spacewalk June 3, a group of high school students gathered to talk via Skype with two NASA astronauts who themselves have spacewalked a dozen times during their careers.

The 20 East Tennessee students, participants in the 2015 ASM International Materials Camp held June 1-5, listened to astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Jeffrey Williams describe their experiences living and working aboard the International Space Station. The astronauts then answered questions related to experiments the teens performed on debris from the space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart during re-entry in 2003 killing all seven crew members.

The camp, begun in 2004, was jointly sponsored by CNS, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Tennessee and the Knoxville chapter of ASM International, which is an association of materials scientists and engineers.

Y-12 Senior Metallurgist Steven Dekanich and Steve McDanels, chief of the NASA Materials Science Branch, teamed up this year to lead the weeklong event. The two men met at a 2005 conference in Hawaii and immediately shared a passion for sparking material science interest in the next generation.

“Steve (McDanels) is a big proponent of materials science in general, and this camp specifically,” Dekanich said. “The camp is a great opportunity for local high school students to see how materials science affects a lot of disciplines.”

McDanels told the group that while most people don’t know what materials science is, it touches every aspect of their lives. The discipline focuses on materials selection, materials testing and failure analysis. On the camp’s first day, the students examined recovered parts of the Columbia, after McDanels explained an accident investigation that took 1.5 million hours and 16,000 searchers to recover 84,000 pieces of debris.

“Everything that occupies space is made out of something, and most everything will ultimately fail, given time and conditions,” McDanels said. “There has to be a future of materials science, and it has to be them,” he said, referring to the students.

Camp participant Natasha Long, a rising senior at Lenoir City High School, said she wants to study science but hasn’t decided which area. She found the camp fascinating, as did her brother, Jedidiah Long, who participated in 2012 and now is majoring in materials science at UT.

“It was really an eye-opening experience for him. It just clicked with him and he decided to major in it,” Natasha Long said.

After the question-and-answer session with the astronauts, the students heard from Jedidiah Long as he described his studies at UT. One student asked if he had already decided to major in materials science before the camp.

“I had no idea. I thought I was going to be a chemical engineer,” Long answered. He was then asked why he didn’t pursue that area.

“Because this was cooler,” he replied.

The students performed materials analysis using state-of-the-art equipment brought in by Mager Scientific, Hitachi and Keyence.

“This is another example of how well UT and labs like the ones at Y-12 and Oak Ridge National Laboratory can work together to benefit students and science,” Dekanich said. “Those partnerships are important.”