A Thirty Year Bond: The Colloids, Polymers, and Surfaces Program
Undergraduate chemistry and chemical engineering students are not commonly educated in either colloid or polymer science, but a unique partnership changed that tradition at Carnegie Mellon. More than 30 years ago, the university and PPG Industries developed a unique program to give students in these fields a solid foundation in both colloids and polymer science, initially through a master's program and later through undergraduate coursework.
First, a quick chemistry lesson about colloids and polymers. Colloids are very fine, nano-size, particles that are dispersed or distributed in a solid, liquid, or gas medium. Occasionally classified as colloids, polymers are long chain macromolecules used to make many products such as plastics, contact lenses, personal care products, and in the case of PPG, coatings and paints.
Polymers possess a broad repertoire of abilities. Absorptive polymers are used, for example, in baby diapers to wick away moisture and in woven products to clean up oil spills. The presence of colloids explains why dirty water is brown, and why milk is white and opaque.
For PPG, the Pittsburgh coatings manufacturer, the study of both colloids and polymers has always been serious business. The chemistry of colloids, for instance, is important to ensure that color pigments in paint remain dispersed and do not settle to the bottom of the paint can.
Because most of their chemists and engineers had been trained traditionally, without the emphasis on colloids and polymers, the late Dr. Howard Gerhart, a vice-president from PPG, approached Carnegie Mellon about providing formal education for its scientists in colloid and polymer science. Faculty from the Chemical Engineering and Chemistry Departments agreed to provide this graduate level experience, which included research projects and coursework. In September 1973, the Colloids, Polymers, and Surfaces (CPS) program was established.
An additional driving force behind the newly minted program was Dr. Jerry Seiner, a scientist at PPG, a member of the CPS Industrial Advisory board, and Carnegie Mellon chemical engineering alum, who recruited PPG employees to enroll in the CPS program with an inaugural class of thirty-two part- and full-time students.
By 1976, CPS had awarded MS degrees to its first graduates and in 1978, expanded to offer, for the first time, this specialized coursework to undergraduates. Presently, the program offers a Master's of Science degree in CPS and an undergraduate minor in CPS to engineering students through the College of Engineering. It is the only program of its kind in the U.S. that offers a joint degree in colloids and polymers.
This bond between university and industry has continued over the last generation, as Carnegie Mellon and PPG have shared in several joint education, training, and community outreach programs. But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this partnership has been the bridge established from college to career. Since the beginning of the program, an impressive 40% of CPS part-time students have been employed by PPG Industries.
In 2001, PPG renewed its support with Carnegie Mellon through generous contributions used to renovate an aging CPS lab, first opened in the early 1970s. The support also included funding for equipment and graduate student fellowships. To commemorate the pivotal contributions made by its early advocate Jerry Seiner, the CPS program established a lecture series named in his honor. The series, which recognizes distinguished research in industry, was launched at the official opening of the PPG Industries, Colloids, Polymers, and Surfaces Laboratory in May, 2001.
"PPG's support was monumental in making the new lab possible for educational and outreach events on campus, which include programs for students and teachers about engineering and industrial technology," said CPS Program Director, Annette Jacobson.
The renovation of the PPG lab, part of Carnegie Mellon's Center for Complex Fluids Engineering, included a significant upgrade to the equipment in the lab. The equipment, said Jacobson, provides students the opportunity to characterize colloid and polymer products, such as testing polymeric materials for strength, elasticity (ability to stretch), and brittleness--all according to industry standards.
As to the educational benefits, Jacobson said, "Although the lab is scaled down compared to the size of labs used in industry, the training students receive in the lab reinforces what was covered in the lecture course."
The PPG lab also serves as a place to train aspiring chemists and engineers. Summer outreach programs organized and staged in the PPG lab educate high school students about the science of polymers at work in Shrinky Dinks(TM) and the toy foam animals that seem to grow before your eyes when you put them in water. Further programs include the Pittsburgh Teachers' Institute and the Society of Women Engineers' Engineering Your Future program aimed at middle and high school girls. In addition, the CPS program helps develop activities for National Chemistry Week and National Engineers Week at The Carnegie Science Center where Carnegie Mellon student volunteers conduct experiments.
"It seems natural to teach CPS related concepts to K-12 students, because CPS related industries result in consumer products that people use everyday," said Jacobson. "So, we begin by looking at a product, a toy, food, shampoo, soap, and we develop hands-on activities to demonstrate the chemistry and engineering needed to make the product. This strategy can be used at any level, once you adjust the content for the specific background of the student."
Jacobson sees the CPS program as having an important application in a number of fields. "Problems solved by chemical engineers, chemists, condensed matter physicists, and civil and environmental engineers often require knowledge in colloid and polymer science. Since the CPS Program is multidisciplinary in nature," she says, it combines "science and engineering concepts for application to industrial technology."
The long standing tradition of CPS working with industry continues today as some full-time graduate students in the program have classes with fellow students who are practicing scientists and engineers.
As the director of the CPS program, Jacobson lauds this interaction that began in the early 1970s and remains strong today. "This blend of people makes the department more diverse and provides our full-time students with additional positive exposure to industry. Our relationship with PPG has been a great benefit to the program."
—John Worlton, September 2006