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International 2012 Materials Education Symposium

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Materials Education: Adapting to Needs of the 21st Century

Prof Mike Ashby | University of Cambridge

Materials Education: Adapting to Needs of the 21st Century

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What are Universities for? The short answer is: the creation, preservation and transmission of knowledge. The last of these?transmission?is what this Materials Education symposium is about, but it can't be divorced from the other two. This talk is about the transmission of material knowledge in ways that recognize the broader technical, economic and social conditions in which it takes place. It is important for students to appreciate both the history of our subject and its linking role in modern engineering. The subject of Materials can trace back its history for at least 4000 years, a history longer than that of any of the other 'disciplines' shown in the adjacent Figure. It evolved from early Metallurgy, which was itself informed by alchemy and by tradition enshrined in folklore. Today, the subject sits at the intersection of Physics, Chemistry, Geo and Bio Sciences, Environmental Science and Engineering. The Materials curriculum at many universities touches on all of these. This breadth is unusual and makes the subject uniquely well-placed to contribute to the solution of many of today's challenges, particularly: Interdisciplinary thinking that bridges the disciplines shown in the figure, an essential ingredient for innovation from cross-fertilization; Devising ways in which materials and processes can be made more efficient, less expensive and less environmentally damaging?one of the central challenges in advancing materials in the 21st century; Thinking creatively about material needs to meet the changing demands of industry in the next 30 years, and in doing so, linking the science to the engineering; Introducing students to the Grand Challenges of our time such as future mobility, clean energy and sustainability, all of which require an approach combining information from several of the disciplines shown in the Figure plus an appreciation of the role of technology in society. A balanced Materials education today must include both depth, leading to expertise in the subject, and breadth, allowing material issues to be judged in the light of contemporary economic and societal concerns of the present and the future. This is consistent with the increasingly integrated nature of technical education. The evolution of materials teaching has followed such a path. At one time metallurgy, polymer science, and glass and ceramic technology were taught in different Departments, even at different Universities; today they are generally integrated into a single program under the heading of Materials Science or Engineering Materials. There is now a move beyond this towards what I will call Materials Systems and Design, integrating broader technical, economic, environmental and social issues into an entity. The talk will conclude by returning to Grand Challenges, illustrating the way in which they can be introduced, using Sustainability as an example.