Shape-Memory Alloys & Polymers (Memory Metals)

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All plastics are polymers, which are long chains of molecules. Shape-memory polymers, however, are combinations of two polymers, each of which has a different melting point. One polymer sets the permanent memorized shape at the polymer’s melting point while the other polymer creates the temporary shape at a different, transition temperature. Heat softens this temporary shape (by breaking the crosslinks between polymer strands), and the shape-memory polymer reverts to its permanent shape. Some shape-memory polymers have up to three memorized shapes, each triggered at a different temperature.

Adapted from Making Stuff Smarter by NOVA via the Making Stuff project


Polymers, Smart Materials, Properties of Materials


Students should be able to:

  • Explain how the chemical structure of polymers affects their physical properties.
  • Explain the general formation and structure of carbon-based polymers, including synthetic polymers.
  • Explain how simple chemical monomers can be combined to create linear, branched and/or cross-linked polymers.
  • Observe the structure and function of everyday polymers.

Materials in this kit:

  • Nitinol wires set straight
  • ordinary wires – flexible (same length as Nitinol wire)
  • clear container (to cool metal)
  • heat gun
  • samples of various plastics
  • shape memory plastic strips
  • paper towels
  • safety goggles
  • needle nose pliers

Suggestions for the Teacher:

Things to talk about:

  • How can we design materials that respond to changes in their environment?
  • How can we use those materials to make smarter stuff?


  • Have your students put on safety goggles.
  • USE EXTREME CAUTION with the heat gun. DO NOT place heat gun on plastic or anything that can melt easily.
  • DO NOT direct the heat gun at another person
  • Allow metals to cool before touching them

Additional Resources:

Making Stuff Smarter Guide from NOVA


Making Stuff Website
Making Stuff Smarter

STEM Careers:


Disciplinary Core Ideas

PS1 - Matter and Its Interactions
LS1 - From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes
ETS1 - Engineering Design
ESS3 - Earth and Human Activity

Cross-Cutting Concepts

Concept 2 - Cause and effect. Mechanism and explanation.
Concept 5 - Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation

Science and Engineering Practices

Practice 2 - Developing and Using Models
Practice 3 - Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
Practice 8 - Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Suggested Video(s):