“Materials that think” is a first-year engineering experience in which students create multi-functional materials by embedding polymers with sensing, actuation, and networked computation. All polymers are “off-the-shelf” materials from places like Sparkfun, JoAnn’s or McGuckin’s, focussing the class on engineering design principles that are valid across disciplines. After this class you will have a basic understanding of electronics, programming (via Arduino), design tools (Onshape), manufacturing (laser cutter, 3D printer), as well as the engineering design process.



The class consists of a lecture and two lab sessions per week. The lab sessions consist of hands-on instructions on electronics and manufacturing techniques as well as a series of team projects:

  • Scavenger Hunt: Track down equipment, materials and other resources available at CU. Each team needs to track down a (overlapping) set of resources, and present their findings to the other teams.
    • Duration: 1 week
    • Deliverable: 12min presentation
  • Material properties worksheet: What is the function of a selected “smart polymer”/sensor/actuator (see below) and what are its main properties? Create a datasheet the rest of the class can use by collecting information from the internet and your own experimentation.
    • Duration: 2 weeks
    • Deliverable: datasheet (public Google docs)


Shrinky Dink (2014) Thermochromic tiles (2014)
  • Reverse engineering project: How does stuff work? Disassemble, analyze, re-build and promote an object of your choice, preferably something that contains interesting smart polymers or parts that will make your material multi-functional. All videos will be combined into a “crowd-sourced” mini-documentary.
    • Duration: 2 weeks
    • Deliverable: 1min video per group


How does a blood pressure monitoring device work?


  • Final project: Identify an everyday surface or material that can be made multi-functional by combining a smart polymer with sensing, actuation, and computation.
    • Duration: 10 weeks
    • Deliverable: Poster, 5min video, and live-demo at the Engineering Design Expo


S14: Thermocase – a cellphone case that changes color S14: Motus – a sole with built-in navigation S14: Flappy board – a skateboard that can be rolled up and jammed S14: Veni Vici – wireless transmissions using the Seebeck effect
S15: Snow stake – visualizing snow height S15: Jacket that regulates its temperature via smart fabric S15: Shoe that tightens itself up to a desired force
 S15: Light-regulating facade  S15: A box that keeps its temperature  S15: A phone case that prevents your battery from dying in the cold
S17: A smart bike lock that requires power only when breached S17: Smart glass that can block out the sun S17: Fabric-integrated heart-rate monitoring
S17: Smart body armor S17: Smart wood veneer


We are meeting three times a week: Monday 3-3.50 (lecture), Wednesday and Friday 2-4 (lab) in ITTL.

Teaching Assistants/Office hours

Venus Gonder, office hours Tuesday 9:30-10:30 and 1:00-3:00,  Thursday 9:30- 10:30 in the 3D printer lounge.

Course materials and Lecture Notes


We are using the book “Introductory Engineering Design – a project-based approach” which is available online as well as from the ITLL main office.


  • Scavenger hunt: 5%
  • Materials worksheet: 15%
  • Reengineering project: 15%
  • Class participation: 15%
  • Final project: 50%

Materials Database


Name Sample Properties Vendors
Silicone rubber prototype_irobot  Spring 2014
Polycaprolactone polymorph  TBD
Acrylic acrylic  TBD
Urethane urethane TBD
Thermochromic camouflage Spring 2014
Conductive Rubber  conductiverubber TBD
Conductive ink conductiveink TBD
Shape memory polymer shrinkydink Spring 2014 Joanne’s



Name Sample Behavior Mechanism Vendor
Nichrome wires  nichrome Heat Current
Shape-memory alloy  fearing Deform/shrink Current
Vibration motor  bristlebot Vibrate Current
Pump  bloodpressure Compress air Current
Light emitting diode  led_circuit Light Current
Peltier element peltier Heat/Cold

PDLC foil pdlc Transparent/Opaque

Electric field


Air pressure pressuresensors I2C
Light  RGB_Sensor  I2C
Temperature  thermistor Analog
Bending flexsensor Analog



The instructables allow showcase a series of skills that might come in very handy when you create your own smart material, as well as developing your own processes that rely on similar effects.

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