Ever Wondered What Goes On in the New MSE Undergrad Labs?

Matthew Maramo '24 (ENG) uses a scanning electron microscope to view a stainless steel sample at Science1 on March 28, 2024. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

By Alec Arbia, Written Communications Assistant

Science 1 is home to the Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) Department and the Institute of Materials Science. Boasting 198,000 square feet, this state-of-the-art facility officially opened in Storrs on June 15, 2023. The building is one of the largest projects in the Next Generation Connecticut initiative, which was announced in 2013 to significantly expand UConn’s educational and research work in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

When you first walk into Science 1, you’ll see a long hallway speckled with colorful and comfy furniture. You’ll pass the campus’ largest active learning lecture hall. You’ll see the nanoByte Cafe, where you can purchase a sandwich, salad, coffee, or even Boba tea—a student favorite. Just before you reach the far entrance to the building, you’ll see the MSE teaching labs behind glass.

Join us on a tour of the MSE undergraduate laboratories.

photo of the Materials Characterization Lab

Materials Characterization Lab

Passing through that initial entrance, you’ll find yourself in a central breakout area where MSE students meet to work on class assignments and to socialize. Sometimes department events are held here as well. Jacyln Grace, MSE senior, says, “My favorite part about the undergraduate labs is simply having a designated space to exist. I, along with many of my peers, prefer to sit in G07 instead of other places like the Union, library, etc. to study, simply because it’s more conducive to collaboration. It’s really nice being able to have a space where you feel like you belong.” All MSE students in good standing can get access to this space, so long as they have passed their annual safety test because it also accesses 4 labs.

Room G07A houses the Materials Characterization Lab, which is dedicated solely to instrumentation. It contains two Scanning Electron Microscopes (SEM) for high magnification imaging of materials surfaces. One of these SEM’s also has Energy-Dispersive X-ray Spectrometer (EDS) for elemental mapping. The lab’s Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) offers another high resolution surface imaging tool, employing a scanning probe to map the surface and measure down to atomic-scale forces.

photo of the Thermal Processing Lab

Thermal Processing Lab

Another cluster of instruments focuses on polymer characterization. Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC) characterizes the melting, crystallization, and glass transition temperature of polymers and low melting metals. Thermogravimetric Analysis (TGA) is used to investigate blend composition, thermal decomposition, and additives. Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) is important for characterizing chemical functional groups, including identifying unknowns and for monitoring processing and reactions. A Melt Flow Indexer (MFI) is used to characterize molecular weight. This lab also contains Micro and Macro Hardness Testers for metals and ceramics, and Shore hardness Testers for polymers.

Thanks to support from the COE ABET Educational Infrastructure Grant, a Bruker D6 Phaser X-Ray Diffraction (XRD) Spectrometer will also be installed this summer. This state-of-the-art benchtop instrument allows for characterization of crystal structure, orientation, and phase composition.

photo of the Metallographic Prep Lab

Metallographic Prep Lab

The Thermal Processing Lab (G07B) features a long white “makerspace” table. It is surrounded by several chemical fume hoods, a sand blaster, an argon purged tube furnace and several box furnaces. The latter are used for heat treating or anneal metals and firing ceramics. Ben Gwinnel, MSE junior, says “we used the furnaces for heat treating our steel bar during the IMAT Heat Treat Society strong bar competition. To examine and optimize its strength before the actual competition, we also used the ADMET eXpert mechanical testing system for three-point bend testing. UConn’s team ended up winning that competition.”

The Metallography Lab (G07E) is used for metallurgical prep and optical imaging. Thanks to support from the COE Undergraduate Lab Initiative, this lab received a major upgrade last summer. This allowed the department to replace more than 20 year old grinding-polishing wheels, hot mount presses, and precision low speed saws. Cold mounting and etching are performed in the lab’s chemical fume hood. This lab serves as the hub for identifying microstructures and assessing porosity and other defects within materials.

Mechanical Testing Lab

Mechanical Testing Lab

G07F, the Mechanical Testing Lab, is a student favorite - everyone loves breaking samples. This lab contains several universal test frames of varying sizes for mechanical testing in a variety of modes such as tensile (pull), compression (squish), bending, peel, and more. These apply a steady force until the loaded sample deforms and ultimately fails (breaks). This lab also contains a Charpy Impact Tester which applies a sudden intense force. A rolling mill, and a swager, are visible in this lab’s lobby window. These manufacturing-grade tools are used to cold work metals, thus altering their microstructure to design their properties.

The MSE undergraduate labs are used for sophomore and junior lab classes, junior design, senior design, independent study, undergraduate research, and intercollegiate materials related contests. In junior design, student teams conduct a month long, student-chosen research project using the lab's equipment and instrumentation. Senior design teams tackle an industry provided, real-world project. They are mentored by industry and faculty advisors. A joint Junior-Senior Design poster session and industry discussion panel occurs in December. The College of Engineering Senior Design Demo Day (SDDD) is held in Gampel Pavilion at the end of the spring semester, celebrating the culminating accomplishments of our seniors just before graduation.

The MSE undergraduate labs are also home base for several student organizations.

UConn Material Advantage (UCMA) is the official MSE undergraduate club. It is affiliated with four professional materials societies: The American Ceramic Society (ACerS), The Association for Iron & Steel Technology (AIST), The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society (TMS), and ASM International. The club meets weekly with many social, outreach, and professional events.

The 3D Print Club also meets weekly, focused more on how-to workshops, print challenge competitions, socializing, and outreach. The lab’s Project Room (G07D) is filled with the club’s 3D printers and equipment.

The Metal Working Club meets weekly as well, either in the MSE Undergraduate Labs or in the IMS Foundry. Its activities include metal casting, forging, heat treating, blacksmithing, and more.

Professor Fiona Leek, director of undergraduate laboratories, shares her thoughts. “In addition to being a very beautiful space, these labs are packed with materials characterization instruments. These same instruments are common to large corporate labs. Most are equal to those in the campus research labs as well. Such hands-on experience is invaluable for obtaining summer internships in industry, research positions here with MSE faculty, or elsewhere like the NSF REU opportunities. It also ensures graduating students are prepared for graduate school and for an industry career.”

Department Head Bryan Huey also notes, “beyond the purpose-built space—not just for labs, but also to promote collaboration—our students are incredibly fortunate to work with Professor Leek. She’s won teaching and mentoring recognition for good reasons. She’s consistently updating what we teach, and how we teach it, to make sure our students will be successful for their projects on-campus and well beyond as UConn MSE alums”.

Wyeth Haddock, a sophomore taking his first MSE lab class, beautifully sums up the students’ perspective on the MSE teaching labs. “The new undergraduate labs have allowed us to work with high-tech equipment in an advanced environment. More importantly, the lab space helps foster community. After starting my college education in the ACES program, I was worried that I'd be unable to find peers within the major. Fortunately, the new lab space and breakout room have allowed me to make connections with fellow MSE students and Dr. Leek. Thus, my favorite part of being in the major has been the hands-on nature of the work in the labs and the community and network I’ve been able to build so quickly.”

Published: May 8, 2024

Categories: materials characterization, mechanical testing, metallography, news, polymer, teaching, thermal processing, undergraduate laboratories

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