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Training the Next Generation of Materials Scientists

Date Released: 10 November 2015

Northeast Ohio is an important hub for advanced materials – polymers, metal, ceramics, composites, and more.   When Case helped lead the successful America Makes proposal, it was based on our materials strength and wonderful corporate partnerships.  Now in order to grow and deepen this critical area we need talent.   Two Materials Science and Engineering professors are changing the way engineering students learn in order to prepare them for the opportunities ahead.

“If we lecture students about the different characteristics of polymers, their eyes tend to roll up in their heads,” said Professor and Chairman of the Materials Science and Engineering Department, James McGuffin-Cawley. He and Associate Professor Matthew Willard have the  solution: roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

“We have launched a pair of courses for first-year students,” explained Professor Willard, “that connects corporate engineers and scientists who are practitioners of materials science with our students.”

Making something old – new again.

Many students are not aware what their opportunities are.  They may hear about a company that has been around for 100 years and think that it must not be exciting.  This is the opportunity to open their eyes. “They see incredible technologies being created, they see opportunities for professional careers that they didn’t realize existed; and they see just how much these people love their jobs, and how many people are involved,” said Professor McGuffin-Cawley.

As part of this two-sequence course, originally a senior-level class, freshman tour corporate labs and meet practicing materials engineers.  Case Western Reserve’s location is perfect as we have many premiere industry partners.  Last year students learned about materials work at Philips Medical Systems, GE Medical RPI, Rhenium Alloys, and the Timken Company. 

The professors draw out lessons from what students see first hand: “The professor that’s teaching the class links these opportunities with the tours by threading the technology being developed,” said Professor Willard.  The first half of the semester consists of observation and ideation.  The second half allows the students to turn their plans into reality.

“During the second half of the course, we turn them (the students) loose in the building to try and build their part or device using a series of tools that they have, both in our department and in think[box],” said Professor McGuffin-Cawley.

“It’s a laboratory course and a materials discovery course,” added Professor Willard.

To simulate a real-world context, the students create a complete design plan including deadlines.  They create 3D images using software called 123Catch, they complete the 3D printing process at think[box], the university’s innovation center, and then they work in groups to meet their “contract” deadlines. The process itself is practice not only in creating, but planning, collaborating, and managing time and resources efficiently.