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Serious Silly Putty

The suspense built in the afternoon heat Tuesday as spectators craned their necks at the roof of D.H. Hill Library, trying to catch a glimpse of an 80-pound orb of Silly Putty.

They’d already watched as half a dozen smaller balls, from ping pong to softball size, were tossed off the roof 141 feet above. The ping pong size balls bounced, but the larger ones split into several large chunks.

Now the youngest spectators, an elementary-age crowd, were getting restless for the finale. “Drop it, drop it, drop it,” they chanted.

Finally the supersized Silly Putty was in position and the crowd counted down in glee, “5, 4,3,2,1!”

Pink Projectile

Roger Russell prepares for the Silly Putty drop outside D.H. Hill Library.

The pinkish projectile landed with a satisfying boom that echoed off the buildings in the Brickyard. Chunks splattered apart on impact and unexpectedly tiny fragments flew in all directions, coating the blue tarp below.

“We had heard it could fly everywhere, but I wasn’t sure,” said Jenny Vaughn, a junior from Chapel Hill who was among the 21 high school students attending Materials Camp. “It was interesting to see.”

The students had been experimenting with metals and glass in labs as part of the week’s activities, so they had some scientifically based ideas about what they’d see.

“It’s a polymer and there’s a lot of kinetic energy, so once it hit the ground, all that kinetic energy had to go somewhere,” said Walker Reese, a high school senior from Stanley attending Materials Camp. “That’s why it popped.”

Making an Impact

Part of the day’s lesson was to expect the unexpected, especially from a non-Newtonian fluid like Silly Putty that’s bouncy and pliable in small amounts but shatters like glass in a large chunk.

Jenny Vaughn helps pick up the pieces after the Silly Putty drop.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Roger Russell, a camp coordinator and staff member in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “We want to make sure that the campers leave here with an experience they will remember and that they will remember NC State for a long time.”

About half of last year’s campers decided join the Wolfpack for college, he said.

Three years ago, Materials Camp counselor Brian Wells was a Garner High School student waiting for the drop. Now he’s an NC State junior majoring in materials science and textile engineering.

“When I was a camper, I was thinking of majoring in chemical engineering,” he says. “I found out that materials sciences does more things with solids, as opposed to liquids and gases in chemistry, and I liked that.”

Wells lent a hand as campers slipped off their shoes to avoid a coating of sticky goo, reassembling as much of the Silly Putty as they could for one last drop.

Paul Poyman, a senior from East Chapel Hill High School, hefted the slightly smaller chunk to his shoulder, surrounded by fellow campers who laughed as it stuck to his shirt. In just over a year, he plans to be back at NC State as an incoming freshman.

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