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By Professor Adrian Sutton, Oxford University

"Starting with 2.1 (Materials related knowledge and skills), I would like to express some concerns. My principal concern is that the picture presented by these bullet points is of a very traditional degree in materials science. Almost the same list could have been written 30 years ago. And yet there are enormous changes that have taken place, both in technology and in science, that should impact on what we teach in materials science.

I am concerned that any truly innovative approach to teaching materials science, that might be more appropriate to the growth industries of the 21st century rather than the now declining industries of the 20th century, could have rather little overlap with the following:

(a) the concept of structure as used in the benchmark statement appears tobe only at the atomic scale. As described in Sam Allen's recent book structure in materials is very much a multi-scale concept (embracing microstructure as well), and that is why it is so fundamental to the entire subject. It also seems to leave out colloids and dispersions and other important examples of soft matter (important for example for the food industry).

(b) Is thermal analysis really so important these days that we must tell
our undergraduates about it? Isn't EDX at least as relevant? Thermal
analysis was an important tool in Hume-Rothery's day for determining phase diagrams. Is it so important now?

(b) Under 'Mechanical behaviour' there are 'Stengthening, toughening and stiffening mechanisms'. Of what? These differ widely in different
materials, e.g. metallic alloys and polymers.

(d) The description of processing seems especially backward-looking. I can imagine that some might prefer to teach sol-gel techniques, and
nanofabrication methods than 'heat and mass transfer and fluid mechanics'. 'Surface treatment' is also very broad and one wonders 'of what?' - bone, steel, concrete, wood, polymers? A central concept to tell students about is the difference between making materials at or near to thermodynamic equilibrium, and being able to create materials that are far from equilibrium and yet stable for all practical purposes. I would rather the description of processing was phrased in terms of general concepts like this than the specifics put into the benchmark statement. Another example of a general concept in processing is the variety of practical ways of altering the stability of microstructures of materials. This is less restrictive than talking about liquid and solid-state processing.

(e) 'Wear of materials' is another extremely broad area. Is it OK to teach wear of cartilage rather than wear of steel bearings for example?

In 2.2 the section on Mathematics looks very weak in my view. I understand the committee's fear about being prescriptive here, with mathematics being a real weakness among many university entrants. But a key point is that students must see mathematics as an important, often indispensable, language and tool for formulating and solving problems in materials science. In this way mathematical thinking can be, and in many cases has to be, part of the everyday life of a materials scientist.

To what extent are the benchmark specifications in accordance with the key wealth-creating and employment needs of the 21st century, as defined in recent government documents? There are two such documents that are particularly relevant:

1. There is a White Paper entitled "Excellence and Opportunity - a Science and Innovation Policy for the 21st Century" (DTI, Dec. 2000, Cm 4814)(www.dti.gov.uk/ost/aboutost/dtiwhite). The key section of this relevant to materials is the one entitled "Basic Technologies". This focusses on nanoscience and nanotechnology, quantum computing, and bioengineering. There will be flagship calls in the following areas (these are directly quoted from the announcement of a meeting being arranged in London by EPSRC on 31st May 2001 to launch the programme):

(a) Nanoscale science and technology: ranging over nanofabrication and metrology; nanostructures with novel optical, electronic, and magnetic properties; devices and machines; molecular sensing and recognition; particles, clusters and materials.

(b) Sensors: biological, environmental or industrial. Here there is scope
for new ideas in: hostile environments such as irradiated or deep sea
regions; environmental monitoring; bioinformatic chip arrays; product or
object screening; non invasive tools; smart sensors with intelligent
processing.

(c) Smart Materials, structures and biomimetics: where materials, sensing, processing, actuation and control are all integrated and thereby able to respond to environmental conditions. Promising areas here are : self assembly and repair; restoring damaged tissue; drug delivery systems; damage tolerance and self diagnosis; depositional techniques.

(d) Sustainable technologies: a vast area covering, among other things,
renewable energy; health and bioremediation; industrial resource
efficiency; waste management and disposal; carbon management; sustainable manufacture; green chemistry; life cycle planning and design; development and ecological issues."

2. The latest Materials Foresight report entitled "Materials: Shaping our
Future" (Dec. 2000) (www.foresight.gov.uk/servlet/DocViewer/doc=2471)
was produced by an independent panel, but is in very close agreement with the White Paper. Key priorities identified are:

(a) Nanotechnology (including nanofabrication, molecular nanotechnology at the biological / medical / functional materials interface, and 'extreme' nanotechnology (i.e. moving individual atoms and molecules around, into chosen positions).

(b) Biomaterials of increasing sophistication, e.g for tissue
reconstruction, repairing neural functions, stimulating specific responses
from individual cells, and materials that biodegrade in a controlled
manner to be replaced by biological tissue.

(c) Predictive modelling, especially for end-user applications.

(d) Energy storage materials, sensors, and functional materials e.g. for
photonics and magnetics.

Obviously, the materials field does not encompass all the topics
identified above, but does does the benchmark statement cover enough of them? I don't think so. It is absolutely vital to the future of the UK of
that we educate the best people for these forward-looking areas.

My greatest concern is that the current benchmark statement will inhibit the development of the forward-looking courses that the White Paper and the Foresight Report signal are needed."

Adrian Sutton, June 2001

  

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This area of the website contains articles intended to stimulate debate amongst the Materials community. Some of the articles are deliberately provocative. Please feel free to express your own opinion, or suggest other topics for discussion, by contacting the UK Centre for Materials Education.