The following article appears in the journal JOM,
49 (10) (1997), p. 10.

JOM is a publication of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society


Defining the Core Materials Curriculum

M.A. Crimp and A.D. Rollett

Motivated by changes in the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology's (ABET's) requirements for program accreditation (ABET 2000), limitations on the number of program credits, and changing technological needs, the TMS Education Committee sponsored the symposium Defining the Core Materials Curriculum at the 1997 TMS Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida, to bring together leaders in education and industry to discuss the direction of materials education into the 21st century.

The keynote address was given by Gerald Liedl (Purdue University), whose presentation outlined the constraints involved in developing a comprehensive curriculum. These constraints include institutional mandates, student backgrounds, resources, accreditation objectives and criteria, and employer expectations. Given this environment, it was concluded that the curriculum design is a truly open-ended process, and the outcome will clearly vary from institution to institution. However, within this open framework, the materials curriculum must foster the taxonomy that materials science and engineering is a field that integrates the knowledge base relative to the structure, properties, processing, and performance of materials systems to produce a desired product. David Laughlin (Carnegie Mellon) made the case for maintaining this classical approach to materials while not ignoring the need to grow beyond the metallurgical roots of the subject. The variation in size of materials departments as it affects curriculum was discussed by Jeffrey Fergus (Virginia Tech's writing requirements into the engineering courses, in part by requiring the submission of a portfolio in order to graduate. The case for integrating more general skills into the curriculum was reinforced by Roger Heimbuch (General Motors) and Robert Kissinger (General Electric), who both outlined the need for graduates to have strong communication skills, the ability to work in teams, a strong ethics base, and the ability to continue to develop through life-long learning. Heimbuch emphasized the need for the materials curriculum to not ignore the commodity materials that many companies use on an everyday basis. Furthermore, Kissinger stressed the advantage for materials undergraduates to broaden their educational base through co-op programs. He also noted that his company tends to hire at the master's degree level in preference to the Ph.D. level.

One of the major concerns in developing a comprehensive materials curriculum is the 128 semester credit constraint that is being imposed by many universities, sometimes as a result of political pressures. This subject was considered in detail by Richard Porter (North Carolina State University). He emphasized the need to put critical thinking into the curriculum as early as possible. Ron Gibala then showed how such a 128 credit program has been implemented at the University of Michigan. A steady increase in the amount of time spent in the undergraduate program over the past 40 years from four years to 4.7 years was noted, despite a simultaneous increase in the amount of advanced-placement credit claimed by incoming freshmen.

Other program reviews were given by Uday Pal (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Marek Dollar (Illinois Institute of Technology), and Alan Lawley (Drexel University). Of particular interest was the E4 curriculum at Drexel, which integrates materials engineering as part of the general-education curriculum from the freshman year, rather than beginning materials education at some point in the sophomore year as is the practice in most materials programs. This change is widely viewed as important for engaging engineering students at the beginning of their career and showing them the relevance of the sciences. An equally innovative approach at the Illinois Institute of Technology was described by Dollar, which emphasizes small teams of students who are drawn from different years and schools (such as business, engineering, and law).

While many of the details, particularly the electives, of the various materials programs presented varied, a common theme was found in the basic materials courses. Most of the programs used an introductory materials course plus a number of core courses to define the basic elements of the curriculum. Blair London (Cal-Poly, San Luis Obispo) gave a very graphic presentation of this with a model that depicted the materials curriculum as a house: an introductory materials course acts as the foundation; four pillars—thermodynamics, kinetics, mechanical properties, and electronic properties—act to support the roof; basic courses in metals, ceramics, polymers, composites, and technical electives comprise the roof; and a capstone senior project ties the program together.

A highlight of the symposium was the panel discussion at the end of the symposium. The panel consisted of Harold Weinstock (Air Force of Scientific Research), Jerry Liedl (Purdue), Reza Abbaschian (University of Florida), Warren Hunt (Aluminum Consultants), John Silvestri (Allvac), and Mark Dubecky (General Electric Nuclear Energy). Following an introduction by Jerry Cohen (Northwestern University), a lively discussion ensued on a variety of materials-education topics. It became clear that different institutions have different curricula because of the wide range of variables, such as student base, institutional constraints, resources, and mission. Some skepticism was expressed about the value of current changes in curriculum because of the lack of quantitative data. Nevertheless, there was general agreement that the different programs will have common foundations in teaching the core of the materials curriculum.

It was also agreed that the materials curriculum must deliver, in addition to technical preparation for undergraduates, a broad-based education that instills strong communication skills, ethical standards, and an appreciation for engineering in a global/social context. Problem solving was emphasized as a way to engage the attention of students and impart a generally useful approach to professional life. Thus, the need for curricula that truly integrate and foster such broad perspectives must continually to be developed and revised in order to meet the changing needs that the future will present.

M.A. Crimp is an associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Mechanics at Michigan State University.

A.D. Rollett is head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

For more information, contact M.A. Crimp, Department of Materials Science and Mechanics, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan 48824.

Copyright held by The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, 1997

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