NOVA: Making Stuff

Expand/Collapse NOVA: Making Stuff


What will the future bring, and what will it be made of? In NOVA's popular series, Making Stuff, technology reporter David Pogue takes viewers on a fun-filled tour of the material world we live in, and the one that may lie ahead. Get a behind-the-scenes look at scientific innovations ushering in a new generation of materials that are different than anything we've ever seen.

The media resources below enable educators to get an inside look at the field of materials science and encourage a better understanding of the scientific innovations that are developing materials that will shape our future.

For additional classroom resources, download the Making Stuff Activity Guide, which contains four materials science activities that can be used in afterschool or out-of-school programs, or other settings.

  • The Math Behind Package Delivery

    Learn how UPS, a global package delivery company, has developed an algorithm to schedule routes for its delivery trucks in this video from NOVA: “Making Stuff Faster.” Host and technology columnist David Pogue examines how difficult it is to find the most efficient way to visit multiple locations—a mathematical challenge known as the "traveling salesman problem." UPS has developed a system that breaks the problem down into smaller problems so that a computer can approximate the best solution without having to do an astronomical amount of calculations.

     

    Grades: 6-12
  • Fabric From Hagfish Slime

    Learn about the potential for a new type of fiber that is stronger than nylon and made from a renewable resource in this video from NOVA: “Making Stuff Wilder.” Host and technology columnist David Pogue meets with scientists at the University of Guelph to investigate how hagfish are inspiring the development of new materials. Hagfish are eel-like animals that protect themselves from predators by releasing mucin and thread cells to create a slime. The threads are very strong; researchers are seeking a way to synthesize hagfish proteins to artificially produce similar threads.

    Grades: 6-12
  • A Green Way to Fight Fires

    Learn about TetraKO™, an environmentally friendly firefighting product, in this video from NOVA: “Making Stuff Safer.” Host and technology columnist David Pogue meets with the engineers who designed TetraKO™ to learn how the cornstarch-based gel works as an effective fire suppressant and retardant. The product is a non-Newtonian fluid, which means that it has special properties. When it is first sprayed from a hose, it is liquid. Once it lands on a surface, it turns into a solid and adheres to that surface. In addition, because it is nontoxic, it is safer for firefighters and wildlife than existing chemical fire suppressants and retardants.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Making Boats Fly

    Learn how advances in technology allow boats to go faster than ever before in this video from NOVA: “Making Stuff Faster.” Host and technology columnist David Pogue examines two factors that limit speed—energy and resistance—and describes how Oracle Team USA maximizes the speed of its boat. Instead of a traditional sail, the boat has a rigid carbon-fiber wing that acts as an airfoil to create lift and propel the boat forward. In addition, foils on the underside of the boat lift it largely out of the water, which reduces the drag force exerted by the water on the boat.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Preserving Permafrost

    Learn about a device that helps keep permafrost frozen and preserve the stability of the frozen ground in this video from NOVA's “Making Stuff Colder.” Host and technology columnist David Pogue explores how the structural integrity of permafrost is compromised when it warms, and finds out how thermosyphons prevent the ground from warming. Thermosyphons draw heat from the ground; this makes the liquid inside the tube turn into a gas, which then moves up the tube and transfers the heat to the air. Thermosyphons are successfully used around buildings, roads, and the Alaska oil pipeline to help keep the ground frozen.

     

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Swarm Robotics

    Learn how multiple robots can behave like a swarm in this video from NOVA: “Making Stuff Wilder.” Host and technology columnist David Pogue explores how individual robots can communicate and work together as a group, acheiving more as a group than on an individual basis. At the University of Pennsylvania, researchers demonstrate for Pogue how a swarm of robots can act as a search and rescue team. Swarm robotics has these guiding principles, inspired by swarms in nature: each robot is self-controlled as much as possible, each robot primarily acts on local information, and no one robot is in charge. 

    Grades: 6-12
  • Powering Torque in the Trunk

    Learn about the technology behind the White Zombie, an extremely fast electric car, in this video from NOVA: “Making Stuff Faster.” Host and technology columnist David Pogue explores how torque affects the acceleration of a car and how the White Zombie compares to other automobiles. For John Wayland, the creator of the White Zombie, the biggest challenge was finding a battery that could power the car’s remarkable motor. Wayland took inspiration from the way a helicopter operates and develop a lithium and manganese battery pack that allows the car to go fast and far. 

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Science of Keeping Cool

    Learn how a cooling vest can help regulate body temperature in this video from NOVA: “Making Stuff Colder.” Host and technology columnist David Pogue explores what heat is and how it moves from areas of higher temperature to areas of lower temperature. Pogue first demonstrates how someone wearing military gear in hot conditions is susceptible to heat exhaustion, and then investigates the effectiveness of wearing a cooling vest as part of the gear. As Pogue exerts himself in a hot environment, his body temperature increases; however, when he puts on the cooling vest, the heat transfers to the chilled water in the vest, allowing him to stay cool.

     

    Grades: 6-12
  • Wild-Inspired Robotic Arms

    Learn how one company took inspiration from nature to reinvent the robotic arm in this video excerpted from NOVA: “Making Stuff Wilder.” Host and technology columnist David Pogue meets with engineer Heinrich Frontzek to find out about the Bionic Handling Assistant—a machine modeled after an elephant's trunk. A traditional robotic arm is rigid and unable to work closely with humans, but this new design is more flexible and less dangerous. The company has also developed a new kind of adaptive gripper, inspired by fish fins, that is flexible and able to securely grasp even fragile objects, like eggs.

     

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Engineering Soft-Story Safety

    Learn how structures with large open spaces on the ground floor—called soft-story buildings—are vulnerable to earthquakes but can be retrofitted to be safer in this video excerpted from NOVA: “Making Stuff Safer.” Host and technology columnist David Pogue examines how soft-story buildings have collapsed in past earthquakes and visits a testing site to see how retrofits improve their safety. In order to study methods to improve the seismic safety of soft-story buildings, researchers from five universities collaborated to build a typical soft-story building on a shake table that simulates earthquakes.

    Grades: 6-12
  • What's This Stuff?

    In this interactive activity adapted from NOVA, learn about properties of materials such as tensile and compressive strength, toughness, hardness, ductility, malleability, flexibility, electrical and thermal conductivity, and resistance to molds, water, heat, and corrosion. Play a game to identify ten mystery materials using videos and clue cards.

    Note for Teachers: Begin by reviewing the "What's This Stuff?" Teacher's Guide for information about facilitating the activity, then print out and prepare the "What's This Stuff?" Student Activity Guide.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Breaking Point: Testing Tensile Strength

    In this video excerpt from NOVA’s "Making Stuff: Stronger", host and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue visits DuPont™, where Kevlar® was invented. After learning how this bulletproof material is made, David puts its strength to the test with an ice pick. A related demonstration tests and compares the tensile strength and elasticity of Kevlar®, nylon, steel, and cotton thread by using them to lift weighted buckets. Students learn that materials can be strong in different ways—some have high tensile strength, others are more elastic—and that materials scientists test the strength of materials by stressing them to their breaking point.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Strong as Steel: Testing Toughness

    In this video excerpt from NOVA’s "Making Stuff: Stronger", host and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue participates in a demolition derby to investigate the strength and toughness of steel. David and Mark Eberhart, author of Why Things Break, circle around a dirt track and survey the damage to their steel car frame. In a related activity, students test the toughness of some common materials using a spoon drop strength test and gain a deeper understanding about the physical properties of some everyday materials and how materials scientists determine how safe they are, how best to use them, and how to design better ones.

    Grades: 6-12
  • The Business of Bioplastics

    In this video excerpt from NOVA’s "Making Stuff: Cleaner", host and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue visits a Ford factory, where petroleum-based plastics in cars are being replaced with cleaner bioplastics. Watch how wheatgrass bioplastic for the Ford Flex is produced and helps conserve about 30,000 pounds of petroleum every year. In the related demonstration, students learn that bioplastics, made from plant or animal products, are cleaner than petroleum-based synthetic plastics because they can break down more easily in the environment. Students can follow a simple recipe to make their own bioplastic in a process similar to cheese making.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Building a Cleaner Battery

    In this video excerpt from NOVA’s "Making Stuff: Cleaner" with host and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue, learn how materials scientists are designing new kinds of batteries that could power the next generation of electric vehicles. Watch one of the world’s fastest electric motorcycles, powered by the equivalent of 150 car batteries, accelerate to 60 mph in less than one second. In a related activity, students build their own environmentally cleaner batteries using common materials while learning about batteries, circuits, issues surrounding battery disposal, and the efforts of materials scientists to build cleaner batteries.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Magnetic Microbots

    In this video excerpt from NOVA’s "Making Stuff: Smaller", host and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue visits the Institute of Robotics at ETH Zurich, where materials scientists are designing a microbot—about the width of a strand of hair—that can travel into a human eye to treat a type of blindness. The microbot is controlled by an externally generated electromagnetic field, eliminating the need for bulky mechanical parts. In a related activity, students learn about magnets and their properties while designing their own model of a small magnet-powered robot. Students also see how materials scientists use design ideas from nature to overcome weird forces that microbots encounter.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Nanowires and the Ever-Shrinking Microchip

    In this video excerpt from NOVA’s "Making Stuff: Smaller", host and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue visits IBM to learn about nanowires. Pogue and IBM scientist Frances Ross make a model out of pizza ingredients to symbolize how nanowires could be used to shrink transistors and power even smaller, more powerful computers. In a related demonstration, students discover how challenging it is to work on this small nanoscale. Using a Styrofoam® block and pipe cleaners, they simulate working with millions of wires and transistors that are placed onto tiny chips to produce smaller, more powerful electronic devices.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Shape Shifters: Shape-Memory Alloys and Polymers

    In this video excerpt from NOVA’s "Making Stuff: Smarter", host and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue visits Virginia Tech, where scientists are developing an artificial jellyfish that will act as an inconspicuous motion-detecting buoy for the Navy. The jellyfish is propelled by a shape-memory alloy that returns to its original shape after being exposed to heat. In the related demonstration, students discover some other shape-memory materials that can sense and respond to their environments. They also learn how materials scientists are developing new “smart” materials to help solve problems in engineering, medicine, and everyday life.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Outsmarting Oobleck

    In this video excerpt from NOVA’s "Making Stuff: Smarter", host and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue learns about the interesting behavior of some fluids with strange flow properties. Watch as he tries to run across a pool filled with Oobleck, a mixture of cornstarch and water that drastically changes its viscosity depending on how hard it is compressed. In a related activity, students mix their own batch of this “smart” material in order to explore its behavior and learn how Oobleck’s strange properties are helping materials scientists design new products and materials.

    Grades: 6-12

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