The science behind Shrinky Dinks
The science behind Shrinky Dinks After coloring Shrinky Dinks, they go in the oven, then the "magical" science begins. (Yumi Barak-Vong/Nancy Dorsner/Flickr)
The science behind Shrinky Dinks
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Shrinky Dinks were introduced in 1973. They had kids (and crafty adults) creating artwork on flexible sheets of plastic. When they were popped into the oven, they would magically shrink. They shrunk down to approximately 1/3 their original size. You were then supposed to play with whatever it was you made. But the entertainment value was all in coloring pictures of your favorite cartoon characters. Then you watched them crinkle up in the oven. And then they mysteriously lie down flat again.

But, magic isn't behind the toy's quirky properties.  The sheets of plastic you get in a Shrinky Dinks kit is polystyrene. It's the same stuff as recycled plastic #6. It is commonly used for those clear clamshell containers. You often see them in cafeterias. Raw polystyrene is heated when it is made. It is rolled out into thin sheets. Then it is rapidly cooled so that it can retain its shape.

The polymer chains within the polystyrene are bunched up by nature. They are randomly clumped together. Then they are heated and rolled. They are cooled. This process forces them to straighten out and get into a more orderly configuration. All the polymers want to do is bounce back into their more disorderly arrangement. They are able to do this when the polystyrene is heated again. It's like when you pop a cookie sheet full of Shrinky Dinks into the oven. The term "magic" works pretty darn well. That is when it comes to marketing purposes.

Shrinky Dinks are moving beyond their reputation as a kid's toy. Scientists are finding practical applications for the whimsical sheets of plastic. That's according to a study from Northwestern University. They are being used in the world of nanotechnology. It's a branch of science. It looks at the properties of materials on very small scales. Take glass as an example. It is usually used to insulate electronic material and conducts electricity on the nano scale. Metals like gold can appear red or blue. This branch of science is being used in the real world. It is used to make solar cells. It's also being used to make high-density displays and chemical sensors.

Scientists who want manipulate the properties of certain materials work with nano-scale patterns. They are printed with those materials. The printing process takes time. It is very expensive. New printing technology can print those patterns on Shrinky Dink plastic. Scientists can then shrink the plastic so they can further their nano-scale investigations. The technology is cost effective. Laboratories can independently produce as many copies of these test patterns as they need. That's pretty crafty. There really is a Shinky Dinks kit for everyone.

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