By Helen Widman
As one of the most widely known forms of ceramics, pottery provides art and culture to the world while also displaying one of the world’s most vital materials in plain sight. For Grant Wallace, Ph.D., bringing awareness to the technical applications of ceramics takes the form of slip casting: a process that uses liquified clay, or slip, to mass-produce ceramic pieces that are cast in molds before firing.
Wallace, who is a research associate in the Metallurgical and Materials Engineering Department at Montana Technological University, received a project grant from the Ceramic and Glass Industry Foundation (CGIF) to incorporate slip-casting into outreach events and curriculum at Montana Tech.
“It’s something people haven’t seen, but they may have worked with pottery before, but have never seen this sort of slightly more industrial way of making repeated samples and repeated pieces,” Wallace says.
In June, the Metallurgical and Materials Engineering Department hosted a summer workshop for high school juniors and seniors called MET Camp. The camp included lab lectures, industry tours, hands-on demonstrations, and activities like Wallace’s slip casting.
Slip casting allows for the creation of ceramic pieces that are difficult for artists to hand throw; it also takes a comparatively shorter amount of time. By using a demonstration that students may be familiar with, Wallace hopes to open the gateway to students learning about the more scientific uses of materials like ceramics. Ceramic materials can be found in space shuttle tiles, spark plugs, artificial joints, skis, and much more.
“I’m trying to convince these high school kids even if they’re not interested in engineering that materials are critical to their day to day lives and understanding how materials get made, how they are produced, and who is producing them matters,” Wallace says. “They should learn more about it just to be better citizens and scientists.”
At MET Camp, students made their slip casting pieces—flower pots—and took home pre-fired pots to save time between activities. Even though each flower pot turned out more or less the same, some molds included Montana Tech’s signature hammer and pickaxe to serve as a keepsake for students.
Wallace also explained the chemical and physical changes that were happening to the flower pots throughout the activity. He wanted to ensure that students understood the depth of the material they were working with rather than solely focusing on the artistic aspect of it, which is what many are typically familiar with.
“We talked about when they (ceramics) don’t make that ringing sound when they’re not fired, and how it’s all about the sintering process of fusing clay particles together that matters,” Wallace says. The molecular level of clay offers an even deeper understanding of why the material is so workable.
“Clay particles have a very specific shape; they’re kind of like flat disks. If you look at it under an electron microscope, you can see all these little disks and they all stack on top of each other,” Wallace says. “With a little bit of water in between, when you push on clay, it’s why the disks slide past each other. And it’s why clay is pliable and movable.”
Despite Wallace’s knowledge in metallurgy and materials science, he credits Geoff Brennecka, Ph.D., associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines, for helping him workshop the slip casting outreach activity. Wallace also says that Mary Stevenson, Ph.D., of Deltech Furnaces encouraged him to apply for the CGIF project grant.
Stevenson’s late husband, Cal Stevenson, is a distinguished alumnus of Montana Tech, which made connecting Wallace to the CGIF project grant even more clear.
“Prospective students don’t even know that materials engineering exists, or they don’t know very much about it,” Stevenson says. “It’s a great way to just put a little seed money into starting these programs.”
Wallace wouldn’t have started the slip casting project without first learning about it through Stevenson and the CGIF.
“I’m just really, really thankful for your support and getting this project funded,” Wallace says. “It’s been great to work with (everyone). I’ve learned a lot and hopefully the students that have been a part of it have learned a lot too.”
Because the first slip casting activity at MET Camp was such a success, Wallace’s next step is to incorporate it into the ceramics class at Montana Tech for undergraduates as well as the university’s annual Tech Day. During Tech Day, around 150 prospective students visit the campus and participate in different outreach workshops.
Beyond incorporating slip casting in classes and outreach events, Wallace hopes to one day make the activity mobile so that anyone can do slip casting almost anywhere and use it as a means to increase student awareness of materials science.
“If you want there to be future materials engineers, they have to learn about it,” Wallace says. “And the only way they’re gonna learn about it is through these sorts of things, because it’s not something that gets covered in most schools.”
Help more students discover the scientific depth of everyday materials by supporting the CGIF at ceramics.org/donate.