STOW — While most people have probably heard about The University of Akron’s polymer chemistry program, they may not realize that students interested in that field can get a jump start in the field through the Six District Compact’s engineering academy.
The polymer program, which is taught at the Stow-Munroe Falls High School, got a boost with a donation of a $23,500 oscillating disc rheometer from Firestone Polymers in Akron earlier this year.
"The oscillating disc rheometer describes precisely and quickly curing and processing characteristics of vulcanizable rubber compounds," said David Helmick, the polymer testing instructor and science teacher. "This is important to study as manufacturers need to know the processing time of their rubber compounds. For example, when making a tire, the semi-molten rubber can only be left in the hot mold for a certain amount of time until it completely vulcanizes.
"For the engineering students, being able to run this machine and read the diagnostic reports of various materials they test will enable them to apply those material specifications to fill specific engineering needs in designing products. Part of the engineer and design process is selecting the proper materials for the specific design needs. Students studying material characteristics and evaluating material properties is a vital component to the engineering design phase."
So what precisely is a polymer?
Ruel McKenize, assistant professor of polymer engineering, said polymers are long-chain carbon molecules.
"The longer the chain, the stronger the polymer," he said. "I like to think of polymers as the soft and gooey things in the word, although they aren’t always. Polymers are some of the natural things of the world. Skin, for example, is a biopolymer."
According to "Chains of Opportunity: The University of Akron and the Emergence of the Polymer Age 1909-2007" by Mark D. Bowles, other examples of natural polymers include natural rubber, spider silk, reindeer antlers and even DNA. Examples of synthetic polymers include synthesized rubber and plastics.
Stan Tucek, a junior at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, and Nathan Spurlock, a junior at Stow-Munroe Falls High School, both 17, are two students in the Six District Compact’s engineering academy who have taken the polymer section at Stow-Munroe Falls High School. Tucek said he was interested in computer hardware engineering, while Spurlock’s interests lie in mechatronics, a mix of mechanical and electrical engineering.
Spurlock said that he and other students got to see an oscillating disc rheometer at work at Firestone Polymers, but they haven’t had a chance to use the donated machine yet.
"It’s not currently up and running," Spurlock said, adding that they were looking for a clear space to put it. "Next year, we will most likely be able to use it."
"What I didn’t know is that there are so many different types of polymers out there," Tucek said. "As long as you use the right polymers for the job, you can do just about anything you want with them."
The students also have learned about the many ways of making polymers, Spurlock said. Methods include injection molding, continuous molding and tooling.
"We learned a lot about tooling in the class," Tucek said.
"Especially at Kent," Spurlock added.
"Yeah, we learned a lot about tooling there," Tucek said.
The engineering academy "is a really great program," he added. "It’s very much relevant in what I want to do with my life. Without it, it would be much harder to learn what I needed. I’d have to wait for college to learn about it."
Spurlock said that the engineering field "is expanding at an enormously rapid rate."
"We have a great need for this field," he said. "This program is helping supply that need. By the time I get to college, I’ll already have a solid background."
McKenize from The University of Akron said he had just visited Stow-Munroe Falls High School "a few months ago."
"They helped me with a project," he said. "They have a mechanism for making 3-D printed filaments, and I needed something sooner rather than later."
The application of polymers "is so vast," said McKenize, who added he was impressed that programs such as the one offered through the Six District Compact were offered to high school students. The field of polymers has had "a big societal impact."
"Even if you didn’t want to go into the technical side, you could go into the administrative side," McKenize said. "On the administrative side, there’s safety, quality control and sustainability. On the technical side, you see what type of polymer and industry you are interested in."
There are many possibilities, McKenize said, ranging from biomedical and aviation to civil engineering.
"There’s just so much that can be applied to many industries," McKenize said. "It’s quite vast."
Helmick thanked Terry Hogan, general manager product development at Firestone Polymers, "for making the donation possible."
Students interested in the engineering field "need to have strong abilities in math and science," Helmick said.
"Students also need a strong work ethic, a curiosity to understand how and why things work, and a desire to solve complicated problems through a variety of methods and approaches," Helmick said. "Our program offers the students and introduction to different fields of engineering so that they may complete a more concentrated study of engineering in college."
The Six District Compact and the engineering academy
The Six District Compact works with both The University of Akron and Cleveland State University, Helmick said.
According to information provided by the Six District Compact, the two-year College Tech Prep Academy rotates through four technology areas: computer-aided design; electronics, robotics and programming; manufacturing processes; and polymers. College prep courses in English 11 and 12, Mathematics (Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Calculus, A.P. Calculus AB) and Physics I and II are linked with the technology curriculum. The classes are geared to juniors and seniors, although a third-year option is available for those accepted as sophomores.
Mary Jane Stanchina, executive director of the Six District Compact, said the Compact’s polymer program started at Stow-Munroe Falls High School in "either 1985 or 1986."
"We operated that program for a number of years," Stanchina said. "We were the only one in Ohio. We are in Polymer Valley."
However, the program’s students wanted the Six District Compact to broaden the field of study, Stanchina said.
"Students found it too narrow in scope, so they talked to us about broadening the range of topics," Stanchina said.
As a result, the Compact created the Engineering Academy 15 or 16 years ago, Stanchina said.
"We transferred the polymer program into one of the four rotations in the Engineering Academy," she said. "Students in that academy take three rotations at Kent Roosevelt, and one at Stow-Munroe Falls. We were able to continue to maximize the lab and equipment for the Engineering Academy."
The Six District Compact combines the resources of six school districts — Cuyahoga Falls, Hudson, Stow-Munroe Falls, Kent, Woodridge and Tallmadge — to provide technical education programs and other career-based programs.
Reporter April Helms can be reached at 330-541-9423, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @AprilKHelms_RPC