Young Recycling Recruits Thrive at Bootcamp

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications, Penn State Behrend

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Plastics recycling class opens eyes, options for high school students

When you toss your 2-liter soda bottle or yogurt container in the recycling bin, you may not think about where it ends up or how it might be recycled, but ten Erie-area students, recent “graduates” of Penn State Behrend’s Recycling Bootcamp, sure do.

The students, ages 14-18, saved their home plastic waste for a week before the all-day bootcamp event in August in Burke Center. It was led by Plastics Engineering Technology (PLET) faculty members—Dr. Alicyn Rhoades, associate professor of engineering; Dr. Gamini Mendis, assistant professor of engineering; Anne Gohn, assistant research professor; and Dr. Xiaoshi Zhang, engineering researcher. Several Behrend PLET students helped throughout the day, as well.

The students started the day identifying the different types or families of plastics they collected. They then counted the number of pieces in each family and calculated the weight fractions of each type of material, which is critical for cost-effective recycling.

“Students shredded their high-density polyethylene (recycling code #2) materials, extruded to pelletized form, and injection-molded test samples and plastic building bricks,” Gohn said. “Samples were tensile- and impact-tested at various levels of recycling content. The students then stretched and impact-tested the samples to analyze changes in material properties.”

The work they put into recycling their plastic waste opened their eyes to the challenges involved in the process.

“They were surprised by how much recycling affects the strength of plastic material and how complicated the process can be,” Gohn said.

Comments from student participants reflect the value of outreach efforts and learning in a hands-on environment. Several students said they were now “excited about plastics” and at least one is considering a career in plastics engineering. That’s just what organizers of the event hoped would be the result.

The bootcamp was funded through a $500,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program grant awarded to Rhoades. The CAREER program is designed to support early-career faculty members who serve as academic role models in research and education.

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