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National Plastics Center visits Ayer’s Page Hilltop

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AYER — National Plastics Center’s (NPC) PlastiVan brought its hands-on demonstration to Page Hilltop School to teach fourth-graders about the importance of plastics.

NPC is a nonprofit institution “dedicated to preserving the past, addressing the present and promoting the future of plastics through public education and awareness,” according to information provided by the Leominster-based company. Its presentations are meant to inspire “a new generation of scientists and innovators.”

Over 50,000 students each year are visited by this van, which made its way to Page Hilltop on Feb. 28.

Outreach educator Bill Rand visited with each fourth-grade class in the Professional Development room. He talked to them about how there are chemists constantly trying to make products better by experimenting with the product’s chemical makeup.

“When I was a kid, milk bottles were made out of glass. They were easily broken and so heavy that my little sister couldn’t even lift it to pour a glass of milk,” he said. “In order to make life easier, plastic bottles were created to make the bottles unbreakable and lighter.”

Bumpers on cars are now made of plastic as well because it’s lighter than metal, he said, and lighter vehicles save energy and don’t rust.

Pulling out a Kevlar vest, Rand said, “It’s used by police officers as body armor. It’s very light and provides powerful protection.” He took the vest apart and showed the fourth-graders that it’s made out of many layers of a plastic-cloth-like material.

Stephanie Kwolek created Kevlar in the 1960s in a Dupont lab. Now it’s used for a variety of things from body armor to bicycles.

“The scientists that create new and innovative products do it by ‘messing around’ with chemical elements to make things better,” said Rand. “Now I want you to ‘mess around’ with some of the things I’ve brought.”

In buckets around the room were a few elements for the students to experiment with. He had them mix polyvinyl alcohol, a product similar to Elmer’s Glue, with liquid Borax, a laundry detergent agent. These substances were liquids, but when the students swirled them around with their fingers, a chemical reaction occurred. After stirring, the kids were left with a slime that’s sometimes known as “gak” or “flubber.”

As they were mixing the concoction, Rand said it became cold.

“This is what is called an endothermic reaction,” he said, which is a chemical process that absorbs heat.

Next he brought out a bottle of sodium polyacrylate. He added it to water, which produced a gel-like substance. He asked the students what kind of commercial application a substance such as this could be used for, then he pulled out a disposable diaper. When a baby wets its diaper, he said it mixes with the sodium polyacrylate and “gels” inside the diaper so the baby stays dry.

Rand, who has taught in elementary and middle schools for over 30 years, said he hopes he stirred up some interest in the kids.

“I want them to be interested in chemistry and plastics,” he said. “The industry needs more students to be interested in this academic area to keep the industry growing and innovative.”

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