Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Time to Test My Beliefs

I've said in the past that I don't think much of the field of "materials science" - it is simply too broad of a field for anyone to do justice to. Metals, ceramics, semiconductors and polymers? All mastered by one individual? "Jack of all trades; master of none."

So I now get to test my beliefs this summer. I'm interviewing interns on Friday. I didn't get a crush of applicants, and promptly tossed the mechanical engineers (too much chemistry for them) and the biomed engineers (too little biomed for them) and were left with 5 candidates, 4 of which were MatSci majors and only 1 ChemE (who already has accepted an internship elsewhere). I thought it was a very strange ratio until I got my University of Minnesota Alumni newsletter for the Department of Chemical Engineering and Material Science [1] last night [2]. The letter from the Department Head (Frank Bates) states that the undergraduate class in MatSci has recently double and that doubling is expect to occur again in the next few years. So that explains why there are so many MatSci applicants.

Unfortunately, Prof. Bates must have had a little bit too much space to fill, as he then tries to rationalize (?!) or at philosophize on the two areas being in the same department.
"MSE is fundamentally rooted in quantum mechanics; chemical engineering draws heavily on statistical mechanics. Traditionally, MSE has emphasized solids; chemical engineering has focused on fluids."
Not being extremely familiar with MatSci (or MSE as it was called here), I'll withhold judgment on its roots in quantum mechanics (solid state physics I can maybe see), but to say ChemEng draws heavily on stat mech is enough to get anyone laughing. The one stat mech class I had was taught in the chemistry department, not the ChemEng department. In grad school, the department head constantly gave me a hard time for having done so well on the quantum/stat mech placement test ("No ChemE does well on stat mech. What's your problem?") I loved stat mech, I'm glad I took it as it certainly explained thermodynamics better than the thermo class did, but that's it. It's not an underlying basis for chemical engineering. Now tranport phenomena - that's a whole different story. And that whole solids/fluids distinction? Can anyone say that with a straight face?

So now I get to see this summer what a MatSci person knows. I am looking forward to it, as challenging my beliefs is something I strongly believe in.

(...so does that mean I need to challenge my belief in challenging my beliefs?)


[1] The department has been that marriage of two fields for some 40 years, so it is not a johnny-come-lately, but when I was there, MatSci was clearly the second-class citizen of the department.

[2] I did my undergraduate work at the U and that is also where all the candidates are doing theirs.

8 comments:

Miss MSE said...

I also raise a skeptical eyebrow at the quantum comment... My undergraduate was much more thoroughly based in stat mech, because it's a much easier way to describe metals.

Frankly, most schools do a brief overview of all four major materials classes, but ultimately focus on one or two, depending on the size and history of the department. Schools like Colorado School of Mines, South Dakota School of Mines, Michigan Tech and Purdue are very metallurgically oriented, while places like UC Berkely and Michigan are more into semiconductors. So what a MatSci person knows depends a lot on where they're from, and what they've chosen to specialize in.

John said...

"...what they've chosen to specialize in."

Which is my beef exactly. MatSci is a generalist major, and yet here we are talking about specialties.

Materialist said...

Compared to ChemE, MatSci seems to have
more: electrons, solids, mechanics, flexibility to pursue a specialty
less: thermo, fluids, chemistry, broadly hireable skillset

So, if any of your potential interns really are polymer people, and of course far enough along in studies, they may have had more chance to specialize or do research than their ChemE counterparts.

Miss MSE said...

But isn't that true of most engineering majors? Mechanical engineers can specialize in control systems, or heat transfer. Civil engineers can specialize in groundwater, or structures, or highways. Most students end up with a brief background in most things, but undergraduate specialization is a fact of many majors.

U of M Mat. Sci. graduate said...

My view as a grad of the other program in your undergrad department has a different slant. A Chem. Eng. bachelor's degree qualifies you to pursue the professional engineering credentials of EIT and PE, whereas, a Mat. Sci. bachelor's degree does not due to the lack of the classical engineering coursework in mechanics and design. However, that might be biased by Minnesota's department as a whole having a strong materials focus while I was there.

K$ said...

I have to disagree that materials science is a generalist's major. When I got my BS and PhD 10-15 years ago the core curriculum was focused on hard materials with diffusion, kinetics, thermo, solid mechanics, solid state physics and crystallography. If you wanted to focus on soft materials you needed to do it through your electives. This probably stems from the history of the field, which grew out of metallurgy in many places. My opinion is that materials science teaches you to understand materials from a structure-property relationships perspective to connect atomic scale structure all the way through macroscale properties.

driving lessons Worcester said...

I think this two courses have their own specialization. And there is a job that fit for their position.

Andrew Sun said...

In my university we have College of Materials Science and Engineering. Under a college there are still several departments, of macromolecules, of norganic non-metals, and of metals.
All students under our college only need to take the course Introduction to Materials Science. They then have more specialized courses about macromolecules. In China, people generally don't expect a student of polymer know much about metals.