04-20 Tellus Superhero Materials 01

[Image above] The “Superhero Materials” exhibit at Tellus Science Museum uses materials found in everyday life to inspire interest in materials science. Credit: Tellus Science Museum

From vibranium to kryptonite to adamantium, superhero comics are filled with fantastic fictional materials that capture a reader’s imagination. It is no wonder that many educators use superheroes to interest students in the fascinating world of materials science.

But once you start exploring the real world of materials, you realize many everyday materials are superhero-like in their own way. From giving us the power to communicate with each other regardless of distance, to performing physical feats never before achieved by humans, real-world materials can be just as effective in inspiring future scientists.

The latest exhibit at Tellus Science Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, demonstrates the power of using real-world materials to inspire students. Opened on March 26, 2022, Superhero Materials offers an upper elementary-level introduction to materials science, covering everything from well-known plastics and metals to the hidden world of ceramics.

In an interview, Tellus assistant exhibit developer Rebecca Melsheimer explains that the idea for a materials exhibit was first suggested several years ago, but it was only during this past year that it advanced to the development stage.

“Materials science really caught everybody’s eyes as something that would be a fun interactive exhibit that we haven’t really done before in house,” she says.

Because they did not have a trained materials scientist on staff, Melsheimer reached out to the Materials Research Society for guidance on developing the exhibit. MRS connected them with Richard Souza, manager of industry relations and education and outreach at MRS and lead developer of the NSF-funded traveling materials exhibition “Strange Matter.”

“I talked with him quite a bit and he basically gave me the reassurance that we were heading in the right direction,” Melsheimer says.

Melsheimer also reached out to the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she connected with ACerS member and associate professor of materials science and engineering Mark Losego. He helped ensure the simplified explanations of materials remained scientifically sound, and he gave the keynote lecture at the grand opening of the exhibit. (See lecture below.)

Credit: Tellus Museum, YouTube

Melsheimer says the exhibit aims to help people appreciate how entwined materials science is with everyday life. While this goal was easily achievable for plastics and metals, ceramics presented more of a challenge.

“You always have that idea like, ‘Oh, I know what ceramics are. It’s pottery and dishes and stuff like that.’ But realizing that essentially our entire mineral gallery is a ceramics gallery by the materials science definition … is one of the coolest things,” she says.

In addition to minerals, the exhibit features a sample of silica aerogel as well as a sample of Vantablack, a class of super-black coatings made from carbon nanotubes.

Above, a scale allows visitors to observe how extremely lightweight silica aerogel is. Right, a sample of Vantablack is placed next to a sample of black paint for comparison. Credit: Tellus Science Museum

Glass also makes an appearance in the exhibit, in a display about the importance of atomic structure in determining the physical properties of a material.

For visitors wishing to learn more about the science on display, signs throughout the exhibit include QR codes to a webpage with more information.

Superhero Materials will be on display through Feb. 26, 2023, and is included in general admission when visiting the museum.

A display in the Superhero Materials exhibit demonstrating the wide variety of forms that silica can take depending on its structure. Credit: Tellus Science Museum

The American Ceramic Society is also harnessing the power of real-world materials for science outreach next month during the annual COSI Science Festival in Columbus, Ohio. The Ceramic and Glass Industry Foundation will participate in the “Big Science Celebration” interactive demonstrations on May 7, showcasing glass-focused activities celebrating the 2022 International Year of Glass. Visitors will have the opportunity to try a brand-new experiment that will appear in future Materials Science Classroom Kits.