Army materials researcher shares passion for science with children

Dr. Mark Tschopp, a materials engineer at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, poses with a 4th grade class April 7, 2017, at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in Abingdon, Maryland. Tschopp gave a presentation on materials science. | Courtesy photo

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — As a fourth grader, Army scientist Dr. Mark Tschopp, a materials engineer at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, said things were much different for him than for kids today.

“When I was my son’s age we didn’t talk about how things were made or the impact of materials science,” he said.

But Tschopp had the opportunity to do just that April 7, 2017, at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in nearby Abingdon, Maryland.

“My son’s 4th-grade class invited me to speak,” he said. “They had so many questions from ‘Why don’t we use diamond armor?’ Or questions about bio-inspired color-changing materials, like, ‘Why make color-changing materials?’ and ‘Why don’t you just use the actual chameleon skin?’”

Dr. Mark Tschopp tells students what lead him to a career in science during a presentation on materials science at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in Abingdon, Maryland, April 7, 2017. | Courtesy photo

He said he hoped the kids enjoyed the discussion.

“I hope they can better picture what a career as a materials engineer would be like,” he said. “Hopefully a few of them want to pursue being an engineer down the road.”

Tschopp said students learn in many different forms.

“They learn from their teachers. They learn from their parents,” he said. “But, as their teacher relayed to me, most have never met a ‘real’ materials engineer, including some of the teachers as well.”

Tschopp said he became an engineer because he is passionate about it.

“I think that talking about materials science and technology and what I do may convey a slightly different message, which may resound with students and may even guide them onto a path that they weren’t even considering before,” he said. “If you can help them better realize what they are passionate about, that’s really cool.”

It is a rewarding experience not only for the kids, but also for the presenter, Tschopp said.

“I was just so energized and excited after seeing the genuine interest that these students have — it’s really great to share your passion for research with bright-eyed students,” he said.

One of the teachers, Peggy Miller, thanked Tschopp and told him the students enjoyed the visit.

“Many have even commented that this is now a field they are now interested in studying,” Miller said. “The level of material was very appropriate for this age and the topics were spot on.”

When Tschopp sought resources for his presentation, he reached out to Matt Kiefert, Katie Hall and Cindy Dinunno at the ARL K-12 STEM Outreach team at APG. The team provided him with many hand-outs that proved exciting to the class.

“The best advice I have for others is that if they are presenting their materials work for elementary school students, is to contact the STEM Outreach office,” Tschopp said. “The students seemed most excited about the waterproof notebooks. It was hilarious to see the students experimenting with their water bottles and notebooks as I was leaving the room.”

More than 50 students write thank-you notes to Dr. Mark Tschopp for his April 7, 2017 presentation at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in Abingdon, Maryland. | U.S. Army photo

“It’s important for the kids to be able to interact with scientists because it makes it real to them,” said Hall, ARL-STEM program manager. “They can hear it, they can see it, but if they actually interact with a scientist it can help to spark their interest even further. It provides a better understanding.”

Tschopp said one of the most rewarding aspects of the experience was the wealth of thank you notes he received from the students.

“It was really great to see how this got all the students thinking at materials engineering, Army S&T, and what engineers right here at APG do to help the Soldier,” he said.

“Dear Mr. Tschopp, thank you for coming into our classroom and doing a demonstration,” wrote fourth-grader Lilly S. In another letter, student Daniella F. wrote, “I love my waterproof notepad. I think I’ll either dance in the rain with it, use it as an umbrella, or take it in the shower. I want to become an engineer, chemist and a scientist one day.”

“There certainly seems to be a bigger awareness of careers in STEM fields at earlier ages. I don’t think I learned about materials engineering until I went on a college visit and here is a whole classroom of kids that has been learning about materials engineering in third and fourth grade,” Tschopp said.

“Plus, the media for learning has changed; it was great to be able to go to YouTube and pull up a video on how they make soda cans — the kids really thought that was cool!”

By David McNally, Army Research Laboratory