April 15, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 14

current issue
archive / search

    [aubrey hanbicki] by jason smith
    Postdoctoral research associate Aubrey Hanbicki leads Chicago graduate students who serve as team members for the Museum of Science and Industry educational outreach programs for area schools.

    Materials research science graduate students become high-tech SWAT team

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Staying atop the latest developments in science and technology is no small order for Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, which maintains 800 exhibits and 2,000 interactive stations in enough display space to cover approximately 10 football fields. Barry Aprison, director of science at the museum, can attest to that.

    But just down the street at the University, a team of scientists stands by––ready to help the museum amend its vast holdings.

    “We’re hoping to become the museum’s high-tech SWAT team,” said Steven Sibener, Director of Chicago’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

    “We’ve struck up a very vibrant relationship with the Museum of Science and Industry. Our activities are growing in several important directions. We are helping to refurbish and update exhibits, are participating in brainstorming sessions to introduce forefront scientific concepts into major new exhibits and have worked together to sponsor enrichment programs and summer teacher training with the museum,” Sibener said.

    Funded by the National Science Foundation, the center’s mission is to conduct basic research and to share its knowledge, not only with other scientists, but with industry and the public as well. The MSI is emerging as one of the center’s partners in public education.

    “Next on our agenda is to develop effective avenues by which University science students can effectively participate in and enhance MSI educational outreach programs involving Chicago-area schools,” said Sibener.

    Postdoctoral research associate Aubrey Hanbicki leads Chicago graduate students who serve as team members. Hanbicki spends most of his days working to understand how atomic defects affect the properties of technologically important nickel surfaces.

    The team’s latest museum project was to help correct the periodic table display.

    In August 1997, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry formally changed the unofficial but commonly used names of three elements on the periodic table and added names for three new elements. When this happened, the museum’s giant display of the table suddenly was out of date.

    Once updated, the display will consist of 109 panels, one for each element, suspended from the ceiling and reaching down almost three floors through the center of the museum’s green stairwell.

    “We have a fabricator working on it now,” Aprison said.

    Team members also have assisted the museum with two other exhibits. About a year ago, they refurbished a well-used interactive chemistry display that demonstrated the varying density of five different liquids.

    Then they updated information contained in the “Powers of 10” display. The display portrays a visual journey from Earth to the outer reaches of the universe, then returning to Earth and traveling to the nucleus of an atom within the human body. Each image in the exhibit is magnified from the last by a multiple of 10.

    The Chicago team helped the museum make the exhibit text more understandable to lay readers. The team also provided the most microscopic of the images used in the display, Hanbicki said. Taken with a scanning tunneling microscope, the image shows a group of approximately 100 silicon atoms arranged in a beautiful, microscopic crystalline pattern.

    “The value of the work is extremely important in helping us with scientific accuracy,” Aprison said. “I see our relationship growing so that we can cultivate a vision of where areas of science are moving in near-future applications.”

    Future collaborations may involve the Grainger Hall of Basic Science, which is slated for a major overhaul in the next few years, Aprison said.

    “We have a number of exhibits already committed for this year and for the year 2000. We have a strategic planning process going on right now, and Grainger Hall will be part of that process,” he said.

    Teacher training offers yet another potentially fruitful area of cooperation between the museum and Chicago’s Materials Research Center. Last summer, the museum held a two-week Summer Science Institute for teachers from Chicago middle schools and high schools. The institute included tours of laboratories in the University’s Materials Research Center and the Human Genetics Department.

    According to Aprison, the teachers said their visit to the University’s laboratories was a highlight of the museum’s institute.

    “Many teachers who teach science have never really been in a science lab, and some of them haven’t even talked to a scientist before,” he said. “This was a wonderful opportunity.”

    Itai Cohen, a doctoral student in physics, gave part of the lab tour to the teachers who attended the summer institute. “They asked a lot of really insightful questions,” said Cohen. “Whenever people are interested enough to ask insightful questions, that’s one hint that you have them.”