American Portraits

Purpose and the Invention of Kevlar: Stephanie Kwolek

In this lesson, students will learn how Stephanie Kwolek worked with purpose to conduct research in her chemistry lab. They will use this example to be purposeful in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Narrative

Kwolek’s work at DuPont focused on fibers as she tried to develop a synthetic material that could withstand extreme conditions. Over time, she abandoned the idea of going to medical school and decided to continue her work in the chemistry lab….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can purposeful dedication to one’s work result in important achievements even in the event of mistakes and surprises?

Virtue Defined

Purpose is my answer to the question “why do I exist?” It is the reason for which I exist; it is my goal, that thing to which my actions are directed. It is our answer to the question “what are you for?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn how Stephanie Kwolek worked with purpose to conduct research in her chemistry lab. They will use this example to be purposeful in their own lives.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Stephanie Kwolek’s purposeful behavior in her work as a chemistry researcher.
  • Students will evaluate the value in acting with purpose.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of the virtue purpose to their own lives.

Background

Stephanie Kwolek was born in Pennsylvania in 1923 to working-class Polish immigrants. As a child, she spent many hours outdoors with her father, a naturalist, who cultivated in his daughter an intense curiosity about the world surrounding her. Stephanie became especially interested in science, and she hoped to become a doctor when she grew up.

However, her father died when she was only ten years old, making medical school financially impossible. When Stephanie graduated from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College in 1946 with her Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, she planned to work in some chemistry-related field only until she could save enough money to go to medical school. She applied for work at several industrial companies, including DuPont. DuPont offered Kwolek a job in a temporary research position on the spot, and it was there that she developed a new purpose for what she hoped to achieve in her professional life.

Vocabulary

  • Naturalist
  • DuPont
  • Synthetic
  • Polymers
  • Radial tires
  • Spinneret
  • Solvent
  • Serendipity
  • Kevlar
  • Royalties

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was Kwolek’s purpose in developing Kevlar?
  • What adverse events did Kwolek encounter and how did she respond to adversity at several different points in her life?
  • As a young person, Kwolek saw several different possible identities for herself. What identities or roles do you have? Which is most significant to you? Why? Which is most significant to others? Why?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

 

Lesson Image: © Chemical Heritage Foundation / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

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