Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Gary Prinz was in the car, listening to his young children sing every word of a Katy Perry song, when he got the idea for a program that would help him earn one of the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards.

If his children could memorize the lyrics to a song by a pop star, what else could kids memorize through song?

“If my little kids can remember complicated song lyrics, why not memorize a song about something cool, like science?” Prinz said.

That idea became STEMusic, the educational component of Prinz’s recently-awarded $500,000 Faculty Early Career Development program award. Known as a CAREER award, the funding is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award, given to junior faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars.

"If my little kids can remember complicated song lyrics, why not memorize a song about something cool, like science?"

The Research: Making buildings safer

The heart of Prinz’s CAREER award is, of course, his research. Prinz, who holds three degrees from Brigham Young University and completed post-doctoral research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), focuses on improving steel infrastructure.

His CAREER project centers on how newly-developed 3D-printed steel can be optimized for use in structures.

“With 3D metal printing, we can create crazy geometric shapes that have highly optimized properties for resisting earthquakes,” Prinz said. “The problem is, the processes used to print these objects have an effect on the underlying material microstructures. All of our current models for predicting fractures in traditional steel materials don’t necessary apply to these new microstructures, and we don’t have a good way to predict how these metals will perform in a fatigue situation, like during an actual earthquake.”

That knowledge, Prinz said, is key to making buildings safer and more cost-effective.

In the Institute for Nanoscience and Engineering on the University of Arkansas campus, Prinz and his team can conduct tiny fracture experiments on samples of 3D-printed materials, samples smaller than two microns wide, to isolate how the microstructural features behave at a very small scale. This will help lead to an overall understanding of how these new 3-D printed metals will behave when used in structures.

Specifically, Prinz’s research focuses on metal fuses used to protect structures from high-impact events, like earthquakes or explosions.

“The way buildings resist earthquakes is exactly like how your house is protected from electrical surges – you have a fuse box. When there’s a power surge, a fuse blows or a breaker flips. It doesn’t fry all of your house’s wiring. We put structural fuses in buildings. They’re a local element that dissipates a lot of energy during the earthquake, while keeping everything else more-or-less intact.”

The implications of Prinz’s research extend anywhere a structure could be improved to increase public safety, he said.

“These seismic design principles are applicable around the world,” Prinz said. “The laws of physics aren’t exclusive to the United States.”

Reducing damage during an earthquake or other event not only makes the buildings safer, but it saves businesses and governments money by reducing the amount of repair needed to rehabilitate a structure.

Making a Tangible Impact

The NSF chooses CAREER awardees who exemplify excellence in both teaching and research scholarship, and Prinz said he draws satisfaction from both areas.

Prinz said he was first drawn to civil engineering because he wanted to leave a mark on the world.

“I wanted to design buildings,” he said. “I wanted to be able to see something be built and say ‘I had a part in that.’”

Now, although he doesn’t design much physical infrastructure, he’s making an impact of a different kind.

“I don’t really have a direct hand in any construction projects,” Prinz said, “but I have a hand in training the engineers who will go out and construct a lot of important structures.”

“This is the best job ever,” he said. “I get to do the things that interest me, and investigate things that will hopefully make the future better. We have great students, who are very smart, and they work hard on projects we’re all interested in.”

"With 3D metal printing, we can create crazy geometric shapes that have highly optimized properties for resisting earthquakes."

Funding Research and Future Generations

Prinz’s $500,000 award will fund several areas. For one, it will pay for new equipment needed to advance his research at the nanotechnology lab, which will benefit researchers at the University of Arkansas for years to come.

It will also help fund a PhD student, whom Prinz will train and who will aid in his research. Thanks to a partnership with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), Prinz’s graduate student will participate in an exchange in which Swiss students will come to the University of Arkansas, while Prinz’s student studies in Switzerland.

Perhaps the broadest impact of Prinz’s work on future generations will be the expansion of STEMusic, the song-based science learning program inspired by his sons.

Throughout the five-year duration of the grant, students at McNair Middle School and Root Elementary School will have two visits per year from Prinz’s program. The program, already implemented by one of Prinz’s undergraduate honors students, has several phases. Students first conduct an age-appropriate science experiment. Then, then are tasked with writing and performing a song based on the subject matter. Periodically, Prinz’s group will check in with the students to see how much they retain from the engineering subject matter they learned.

“The project is designed to promote creativity, understanding and retention of engineering principles through alternative cognitive processes,” Prinz said.

About 60 students participated in the first phase of STEMusic, and Prinz anticipates at least that many in future sessions.

And Prinz hopes the scientific literacy doesn’t stop there.

“In the future,” Prinz said, “I want to hear songs on the radio, instead of being about who’s dating who - like my kids are hearing now, to be about awesome science things.”