Smart materials lessons: tips and context


Try these activities to help design your lessons on smart materials. Explore the topic using this simple demonstration of polymers and salt. 

Sign up to our Materials Chemistry online CPD course for this suggested teaching sequence and over 93 additional examples, key teaching tips and curriculum links on the topic.

The course offers content across seven relevant themes including Natural materials, Improving materials and Materials for a modern world. It will take approximately seven hours to complete. 

You can find further details about the structure of the course in the additional information below.

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Most pre-16 chemistry courses only have a very small section on smart materials, which can most likely be taught in a couple of lessons. Here are some suggestions for introducing smart materials to your students.

Lesson 1

Provide students with a range of different smart materials and ask them to determine the stimulus and response for each material. Depending on the group, you could either specify which stimulus to investigate or give them free choice. A good starting point would be to focus on three different types of stimulus: 

  • temperature change;
  • UV exposure; and
  • water.

Students could record their results in a table and consider what the stimulus and responses are for each smart material before going on to create a stimulus–response matrix.

What smart materials would you give your students to investigate? Here are some suggestions:

• Glow-in-the-dark film and UV-sensitive beads, which respond to UV exposure. • Hydrogels which respond to water. • Shape memory alloy wire and thermocolour film, both of which respond to temperature changes.

Lesson 2

After establishing a link between the stimulus and response students could go on to to investigate other effects. For example they could investigate how a mechanical stimulus causes an electrical response by striking a piezoelectrical transducer connected in series with an LED. The LED lights up every time the transducer is tapped.

Alternatively, different groups could investigate different smart materials and present their findings to the rest of the class. As part of this investigation they could also do some research to find out what the materials are used for and how they work. 

Fitting smart materials into other areas of the curriculum

Smart materials can be used in many other areas of the curriculum to develop skills, as a hook to engage interest  and to teach some key ideas in chemistry. For example in the Developing understanding section of the full course we look at how a smart material can be used to enhance students' ideas about energy flow.

Example 1. Questioning and thinking skills

In which topic could you include this simple demonstration?

It could be included when teaching about structure and bonding, properties of ionic and covalent compounds, or smart materials, for example.

What questions could you ask your students during the demonstration? 

What do you see or observe? | Can you explain your observations? | Why does the salt dissolve and sugar doesn't? | Where does the liquid come from?

Example 2. Investigational skills

Which suncream is best?  By covering UV beads with suncream and exposing them to UV light students can carry out a full investigation. 

What other investigations could you carry out using smart materials?


Material science is the study of all the materials we see in the world around us. From the clothes we wear and the dinner plates we eat off to the new technologies used in sports, medicines and computing. In this Materials chemistry course we look at how materials work and develop an understanding of how and why the use of materials has developed throughout history including the manipulation of desirable properties to suit particular uses.

After working through the full course you will: 

  • understand the core ideas about materials;
  • explain how the key ideas in materials develop and progress throughout secondary education;
  • identify common misconceptions and know how these can be addressed;
  • confidently and competently teach aspects of materials to secondary school students; and
  • access a range of activities and resources to support students in their learning about materials

Thank you to Dorothy Warren and John Walker for authoring this course.