Materials in progress in higher education

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2008
Researcher looking into a microscope

This summer saw the launch of the National Subject Profile for Higher Education Programmes in Materials in the UK. In the second of a series of articles, the team behind it looks at the teaching and curricula, and how they have developed in response to the pressures of academia and the demands from industry.

The overall number of materials graduates in the UK has remained fairly constant over the last few decades, but more and more students are choosing interdisciplinary materials programmes such as bio/medical and sports materials rather than ‘traditional’ materials science and engineering. But what sort of students are studying materials, and what can industry expect them to have learnt? The National Subject Profile for Higher Education Programmes in Materials 2008 was led by the UK Centre for Materials Education (UKCME) and aimed to gather this information.

Demographic trends

The UK’s undergraduate materials students are, and always have been, predominantly male, although females now account for just over a quarter of the student body. The bio/medical and sports materials programmes are attracting equal numbers of men and women. Although materials undergraduates are principally from the UK, overseas students make up about one-third of the cohort, with the majority choosing ‘traditional’ materials science and engineering rather than newer interdisciplinary programmes. Overseas students take up most places on taught-postgraduate courses, where they can study for a Masters degree in one calendar year rather than two, as in most other countries.

Students who enter undergraduate materials programmes in the UK are also coming from an increasingly diverse academic background. Most UK full-time materials students still enter university with ‘A’ levels, but in 2006, less than a fifth had ‘A’ levels in mathematics, physics and chemistry, compared with over twice as many 10 years previously. The drop is a reflection of a national trend. The interdisciplinary bio/medical- and sports-related materials programmes typically ask for an ‘A’ level in chemistry in combination with biology, and hence can admit students without mathematics and physics. The increasing population of overseas students also comes with a variety of entry qualifications.

Coping with a range of academic backgrounds was highlighted as a major challenge faced by materials teaching staff who participated in the National Subject Profile. Many materials programmes have had to make significant adjustments by developing new modules/activities and providing remedial teaching, especially in the first year.

These changes have had an impact on content and some traditional recruiters are increasingly looking towards graduates with a four-year MEng degree rather than three-year bachelor degrees.

The MEng was introduced by UK universities in the mid-1980s in response to a growing perception among university staff, engineering institutions and employers that an additional year of study was needed to match the competencies of graduates from elsewhere in Europe, and to cope with the ever-increasing breadth and depth of materials knowledge. Industry also expected graduates to have business and group-working skills. The MEng is now the degree standard for chartered engineer status, although pan-European comparability is still up for discussion.

Changing content

So what is the materials student experience? Typical students will be taught for 17–20 hours each week, with around 11 hours of lectures, four to five hours of laboratory work, two to three hours of design and/or computer classes, and two to three hours of tutorials and/or seminars in their first and second years. In the final year of an MEng, students spend about 11 hours per week doing individual and group project-work to develop teamwork and problem-solving skills.

Although some programmes incorporate more varied teaching approaches such as problem-based learning, the lecture still remains the most cost-effective knowledge-transfer activity. However the chalk-and-talk lecture, with students producing copious hand-written notes, has largely been supplanted by PowerPoint presentations and lecture-handouts.

The National Subject Profile found that just over half of total teaching time is spent studying materials-specific topics, with the remainder covering subjects such as mathematics, business and underlying science. This satisfies the IOM3 accreditation requirement of at least 50% materials-specific content.

Aerospace materials programmes contain less about functional properties and characterisation than traditional materials science and engineering programmes, but more about mechanical behaviour, degradation and durability. Although some interdisciplinary courses may teach mathematics and physics at foundational levels initally, bio/medical- and sports-related materials generally contain less mathematics and phase equilibria, and more on materials degradation and durability.

Some recruiters of materials science and engineering graduates are cautious when recruiting graduates from interdisciplinary programmes. A recent report from the industry representative body Materials UK states that ‘some employers observed that the graduates of such courses are not always well equipped for employment’ in traditional materials industries.

However, universities are more aware that their undergraduate programmes must produce the workforce that the UK economy needs. The National Subject Profile found that materials degree courses largely embed the skills required. Professor Peter Goodhew, Director of the UKCME, says ‘Materials courses are embedding transferable skills, group work, oral presentation and self-learning skills within their curriculum, meeting industries’ needs more now than ever’.

Further information: UK Centre for Materials Education