Engineering In Action

Solid-State Learning

First-year students get a spirited introduction to materials science and chemistry from Professor Jeffrey Grossman.

By Meg Murphy

When Jeffrey Grossman teaches solid-state chemistry, he keeps it moving. His shoes click across the front of the lecture hall floor with the cadence and energy of a tap dance. He spins toward the chalkboard and rapidly jots down equations. He pauses to hold up a large 3-D model of the atoms in a crystal structure, passes it into the sea of 400 students in the room, then resumes his lecture — without once breaking his rhythm.

For the second year in a row, Grossman, a professor of materials science and engineering, is offering his version of “Introduction to Solid State Chemistry” (or, as it’s referred to by students, 3.091, which is tossed off knowingly as “three-oh-nine-one”). The class, Grossman says, is his opportunity to take MIT’s "mens-et-manus" (mind-and-hand) learning philosophy and run with it.

The energy in the room never seems to ebb. At a recent Monday morning lecture, students smashed large pieces of glass to consider their material properties. The students, who lined up neatly to wait their turn, used a baseball to get the job done. Grossman believes they can make sense of a thing more quickly if they have a direct physical experience with it — or, as the students shout in class, “Break it! Light it on fire! Smash it!”

After the glass breaking, first-year student Kathleen Clark observed, “One piece was 100 times stronger than the other because it cooled faster. We couldn’t break that one even when we hit it very hard dead on.” It shattered, however, when students tapped the side of it. Grossman prodded them with questions as to why. The exploration was underway.

“Do Yourself a Solid”

It’s a Wednesday morning. Students are gathering for Grossman’s lecture on the value of crystalline defects. They quietly stream into Room 10-250, a spacious auditorium four floors directly beneath the MIT Dome, and settle in as if at a movie theater. One student covers her legs with a blanket. Another signals to a latecomer, who, smoothing down her purple-green hair, slips into a saved seat in an upper row. An affectionate couple drape themselves over each other’s shoulders.

The auditorium is packed with first-year students. “Could I have a goodie bag?” a tardy student whispers to Laura von Bosau, the class administrator. A pushcart in a corner of the room holds hundreds of white plastic bags with the class logo and the phrase: “Do yourself a solid.” Von Bosau smiles, nods, and hands her a bag.

The 3.091 “goodie bag” is among the innovations Grossman has introduced to the class. It is a small kit containing tools and materials that students use to solve one or more weekly challenges. He uses the bags and assignments to reinforce concepts he covers in his lectures. “Without giving away any surprises,” reads his course description, “the goodie bags will require teamwork, exploring new parts of campus, and a good deal of hands-on science!”

There is educational value in getting your hands dirty, Grossman explains. The bags challenge students to ask questions and take chances. At the outset, Grossman tells them: “Look, one point of these goodie bags is for you to break something in them. It’s for you to take a measurement that doesn’t work. It’s for you to fail. And then it’s for you to figure out why.”

Listening attentively in a front row is Jacob Pritzker, who intends to study electrical engineering and computer science. He is wearing a t-shirt with three equations that when solved and rearranged spell MIT. Grossman’s class, says Pritzker, although difficult, is fun. He recently constructed a complex crystal structure with goodie-bag materials, which paid off during an in-class quiz. “It asked for the number of atoms in a plane of that structure,” he says, flashing a smile. “I looked at my model to find out.”

For this lecture — a complex whirlwind of ideas expressed through images, sound, call-and-response, and just enough humor to keep the students guessing — Grossman uses gemstones (amethyst and topaz) to illustrate the value of defects in crystalline structures. “These beautiful crystals are transparent, yet because of the tiniest point defects, they change color.” He pauses. “Isn’t that just amazing to think about?”

This week’s goodie bag, he says, illustrates what they are learning now. It includes two plexiglass panels, two bags of 250 beads, and eight pieces of double-sided tape that students will use to build an atomic model. “Bring it for the quiz,” he reminds them.

The lecture wraps up and the exit shuffle gets underway. Students shut down laptops and gather backpacks. Out walks Pritzker; he intends to use his skills to work on innovative medical devices. And off goes Clark, of the glass experiment, who hopes to design buildings that are good for the environment. Last to leave is Kai Kloepher, also a first-year student, who is determined to apply what he learns at MIT to “tackle the actual problems of the world.”

Where There’s Smoke…

Since childhood, Grossman, now the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems at MIT, has had his own style of learning — a freewheeling mix of the abstract and the tactile. His boyhood in suburban Chicago was split between programming his Atari 400 computer and smoking up the house with a basement chemistry set. “I loved the analytic,” he says. “At the same time, I also loved breaking things and mixing things and making things smoke and trying to figure out why.”

His attraction to analytical thinking led to studying theoretical physics at Johns Hopkins University and earning a PhD at the University of Illinois. At some point, Grossman says, he recognized that he missed the physical side of learning, so he started investigating the intersection of the fundamental and the applied. More specifically, Grossman’s own research is dedicated to the pursuit of game-changing energy solutions, which he says will largely come down to designing new materials. He wants nothing less than to address global challenges. “It’s exciting to be a materials scientist today,” he says.

MIT students, he says, share in this desire to take on big questions. It’s what Grossman loves about them. “People are drawn to MIT to genuinely work together to solve hard problems and make the world a better place,” he says. “It’s just in the blood. It’s in the blood of the faculty, and it’s in the blood of the students. It’s in every person here. And when I look out at my students, I see it in them.”

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