An Ideal Materials Curriculum

I was writing a comment on Ashish’s post about the need for revamping the materials engineering curriculum, and since the comment became too long, I decided to ‘upgrade’ it to a regular post.

Ashish’s post forced me to think about what an “ideal” materials curriculum should be. Given that I haven’t done any undergraduate teaching, it would be presumptuous on my part to be making any suggestions here. All I can say to defend myself is that I am using this ‘thinking aloud’ exercise to prepare myself for that glorious day when IISc starts its own bachelors programs ‘-)

Now, if you take all four years of bachelors program in engineering, it’s typically divided into several pieces:

  • a system-wide core with courses in the sciences (math, physics, and chemistry) and engineering (mechanics, thermodynamics, electrical and electronics engineering).
  • a system-wide requirement that students take a certain minimum number of courses in language(s), humanities and social sciences.
  • a disciplinary core.
  • departmental electives and soft core.
  • and finally, free electives.

Given this broad division, and given that the system-wide requirements in science and engineering (and the free electives) are not solely under our control, we can only talk about the disciplinary core and electives. To the extent that students learn what Ashish wants them to learn, it really should not matter whether they get them through the core program or the electives program.But, are there principles that may guide us in designing a curriculum — particularly the core?

Take a look at this document [pdf] from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), a body recognized by the US Department of Education for the purpose of accrediting academic programs in American universities. It works with professional societies in formulating its guidelines. In materials engineering and allied disciplines, TMS is the lead society collaborating with ABET. Let’s look at its field-specific guidelines for materials engineering:

1. Curriculum: The program must demonstrate that graduates have:

  • the ability to apply advanced science (such as chemistry and physics) and engineering principles to materials systems implied by the program modifier, e.g., ceramics, metals, polymers, composite materials, etc.;
  • an integrated understanding of the scientific and engineering principles underlying the four major elements of the field: structure, properties, processing, and performance related to material systems appropriate to the field;
  • the ability to apply and integrate knowledge from each of the above four elements of the field to solve materials selection and design problems;
  • the ability to utilize experimental, statistical and computational methods consistent with the program educational objectives.

2. Faculty: The faculty expertise for the professional area must encompass the four major elements of the field.

These guidelines really do live upto the adjective “broad”! I guess the basic point is that there is *no* one materials curriculum; what is taught in each institution will depend on its (current) strengths and weaknesses. It will also depend on the institution’s history. The course program in materials departments that evolved from formerly metallurgy departments will have a strong skew towards metals for at least a decade.

To the ABET framework, the only personal observation I would add is this: the value — and, indeed, the charm — of materials science and engineering is its interdisciplinary nature. The field takes interesting pieces from mechanics, physics and chemistry, and combines them with an explicit consideration of processing to create a unique mix that lays a lot of emphasis on materials defects and microstructures. Clearly, the core curriculum should equip the students to see and appreciate this interdisciplinary focus.

Enough of these generalities. Here’s what I think an ideal materials core curriculum should be. It has less than a dozen courses and a few lab courses, all accounting for perhaps 40 credits — about a third of a typical four-year bachelors program.

  1. Bonding, crystal structure, intrinsic (electrical, magnetic, optical) properties
  2. Crystal structure, defects, characterization
  3. Materials thermodynamics
  4. Materials kinetics
  5. Microstructures: solidification, annealing, phase transformations, sintering
  6. Mechanical behaviour
  7. Mineral processing and extractive metallurgy
  8. Chemistry of polymers and polymer processing
  9. Powder processing, sintering
  10. Manufacturing methods
  11. Materials design and selection: a dozen case studies

Well, those are my choices for an ideal core curriculum in materials engineering. What are yours?


About Abi

My name is T. A. Abinandanan, and I am a professor of Materials Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
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3 Responses to An Ideal Materials Curriculum

  1. Shankara says:

    Perhaps you can be politically correct if you say

    All I can say to defend myself is that I am using this ‘thinking aloud’ exercise to prepare myself for that glorious day when IISc restarts its own bachelors programs


  2. Abi says:

    Shankara: Thanks for that reminder about those glorious days when IISc ran a post-BSc undergrad program leading to a BE degree. But that was a loooong time ago (with the last batch graduating sometime in the late 1980s).

  3. Ashish says:

    That is a surprize as well as heartening to note that IISc may start UG program. That should cast a new chapter (or renew the old one) in IISc history.

    My take for core (not too different from yours but two courses less) would be

    1. Bonding, crystal structure, intrinsic (electrical, magnetic, optical and basic mechanical) properties
    2. Crystallography and Materials characterization
    3. Materials thermodynamics *
    4. Kinetics and Heat Transfer
    5. Microstructures: solidification, annealing, phase transformations, sintering*
    6. Mechanical Behaviour
    7. Mineral processing and extractive metallurgy
    8. Manufacturing Methods including powder processing, sintering
    9. Mathematics for Engineers

    And then there can be a host of electives, may be specializations as well depending upon the faculty and a BTech Project with objectives different than a Graduate student work. Often, we have a tendency to push UG project students into doing same stuff as we expect our Graduate students to do.

    * Phase diagrams can be part of both #3 and #5 as in the former one can discuss the thermodynamic aspects and in #5, one can talk on phase evolution and microstructure development.

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