STEM EDX: Kitchen Science Experiments in “Squishy Physics”

Mohamed Amine Gharbi (Department of Physics)
STEM EDX Fellow, AY 20-21


“Squishy Physics” (PHYSIC 607) is a graduate-level laboratory course underlying concepts of soft condensed matter physics. The course aims to give an overview of the study of soft materials with a particular emphasis on experimental techniques employed in soft matter, which is one of the fields that combines different scientific domains. It has become connected to all aspects of everyday life, from liquid crystal displays and colloidal dispersion in cosmetic products and paints, to gels and lubricants in mechanical systems. In short, soft materials are the materials of the future.

Over the semester, the students use practical examples of soft materials to introduce a selection of experimental techniques. Further, they prepare an experimental project by selecting a soft matter example and investigate its properties (examples of parameters include phase transitions/elasticity/viscosity, etc.).

In-person labs were not possible while the campus was in remote mode so the lab was re-designed so that students conducted all experiments using home-made materials without being on campus.

Description of the Activity

To prepare students for their projects, the course emphasized the relation between soft materials and their applications in our everyday life.

  1. We started with a chapter introducing soft materials: definitions, types, classes.
  2. Next, we focused on the different “technological” applications of soft materials that we use on our daily basis: Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD), smartphones, polymers, foams, soap, surfactants, food, etc. At this stage, students start to feel the importance of soft materials in practical.
  3. Then, we sharpened our discussions about one particular application of soft materials: the “Physics of Cooking.” In this chapter, we reviewed how soft matter laws could be applied to prepare food.
    Some examples:
  4. The students were then asked to think about possible experiments that can be done at home to explore some properties of soft materials. The ideas were discussed over the second half of the semester individually and in group. The outcome was impressive!
  5. Finally, the students were asked to prepare a final report in the form of a scientific paper and present their results. The article counts 50% of the project grade and the presentation 50%.

Sample Student Projects