The “Game”
MIT “at” Colorado School of Mines

Sometimes engineers and scientists have a tough time explaining what they do all day to outsiders. But, those who do modeling and simulation have it easy—all they have to say is that their work is like fantasy football applied to science.

Of course, fantasy football is really modeling and simulation applied to football, but a tailgate party is no place to cut definitions too finely.

This week’s NCAA games did not meet enough of my materials science selection criteria, so I decided to play “what if.” This week’s match-up is a fantasy football game featuring two highly regarded tech schools.

The Orediggers compete in the Division II Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. They started the season ranked in the D2 Top 25 Poll, but last week’s loss knocked them out of the ranking. Look for them to fight hard for a win when they travel to Western New Mexico University.

MIT debuted its varsity Div. III program in 1988 and competes in the New England Football Conference, the largest football conference in the US at 16 teams. Although, the program is relatively young, there is a rich (unsanctioned) football tradition of pranking the Harvard-Yale game when it’s played in Cambridge, Mass. The Engineers host Curry College on Saturday.

My pick? Colorado School of Mines

The “home team”
Colorado School of Mines, Metallurgical & Materials Engineering

Colorado happy hour: Students and faculty hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park after a recent Colorado Center for Advanced Ceramics symposium. Credit: Brian Gorman, Colorado School of Mines.

Engineers-at-heart will feel instantly at home at Mines, from the tech-oriented Pop Quiz on the home page, to the “Laws and Equations” tab on the MME homepage, to the flowchart (pdf) outline of the undergraduate curriculum.

The very name of the university gives away that this is a school with a rich materials tradition and an applied engineering focus. The school’s original focus on the geology, chemistry and metallurgy of gold and silver ores has evolved into today’s mission of “understanding the Earth, harnessing energy and sustaining the environment.” Indeed, the school’s tagline is “Earth-Energy-Environment.”

Likewise, the department evolved from an extractive metallurgy program into an interdisciplinary materials engineering department. The MME program at Mines is “still very much minerals based” Professor Brian Gorman says, but “We’re a traditional earth-systems engineering program that is transitioning to a more science-based program.”

The department has about 150 undergrads. Freshmen start in a pre-engineering program where they are introduced to the full spectrum of engineering choices. In addition to seminars, open houses and lab tours, students get a flavor of materials engineering at “Free Pour Friday” events in the foundry and an open slip casting lab, both run by upperclassmen (with faculty supervision).

Gorman says it is not unusual for students to be “latecomers” to the program, like fifth year senior, Blair Wendt, who transferred from chemical engineering to MME. In an email he said, “The way atoms interact with each other has always fascinated me,” and, while the chemistry of gases and liquids was interesting, “nothing compared to the interactions in the solid state.”

The department’s faculty is organized into six research centers. The centers allow faculty to share space and equipment and stretch a little more research out of their funding dollars (about $10 million per year). The Colorado Center for Advanced Ceramics is led by incoming ACerS board of directors member Ivar Reimanis, and is home to six of MME’s 21 professors.

Taking advantage of the local resource known as the Rocky Mountains, Gorman teaches a three week summer field session with day trips into the mountains to collect minerals. Using hand-hewn raw materials, students learn ceramic processing by making a triaxial whiteware. The field session has been Wendt’s favorite course so far: “It is very interactive and hands-on, and gives you a true feel for what you might be doing in the industry one day.”

Students find there are plenty of research opportunities. Wendt says of his work in Gorman’s lab, “It has allowed me to watch how a new idea grows from a small possibility into a full blown process.” Third-year student Scott Harper is working on spinels and says, “I can attribute much of what I know about processing and characterization to [my grad student mentor].”

Close ties to CoorsTek, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Colorado Fuel Cell Center and other regional high-tech concerns provide ample opportunity for internships and school-year research opportunities. Students are also placed in co-ops from “Alabama to Alaska.”

The smallish department size means students receive plenty of personalized attention. Also, Wendt shared that seeing the same 40 classmates everyday means “we’ve got tons of inside jokes. For example, this year’s graduating class has an ongoing “Wall of Shame,”” where they keep track of funny things worth remembering. An example WoS entry is the “Power Ninja,” for a student-who-shall-not-be-named who accidentally unplugged an entire bank of computers in the lab.

The department has an active Material Advantage chapter and is looking to start a Keramos chapter. Reimanis notes that student participation in a society like ACerS can help them find a “career path and do the networking” that is important in the job search process. He encourages students to tap into the Society by going to conferences, meeting people in the hallways and participating in activities like the ACerS Mug Drop Contest at MS&T.

Mines tends to attract outdoor enthusiasts, and activities like mountain biking, hiking, Ultimate Frisbee and cycling are all popular. Gorman (a native of northern Illinois) says new professors learn quickly to avoid scheduling classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or at least not on those mornings. Why not? The kids are skiing up in Loveland while the tourists are away!

It’s not too late for at least one long-graduated person to get in on the Mines experience. Gorman says the search is on for a full professor to fill the Herman F. Coors Distinguished Professor of Ceramic Engineering endowed chair.

Faculty involved in ceramic and glass research include Gorman, Reimanis, Mark Eberhart, Hongjun Liang, Ryan O’Hayre, Corrine Packard and Dennis Ready (emeritus).

The “visitors”
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Materials Science & Engineering

Ice cream making demonstrates a lesson on the applications of materials science to food science during the freshmen pre-engineering program in August. Credit: DMSE, MIT

Ice cream making demonstrates a lesson on the applications of materials science to food science during the freshmen pre-engineering program in August. Credit: DMSE, MIT

MIT’s DMSE knows what it feels like to be the defending national champs because they are the defending national champs according to the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings. For the third straight year, the department has been ranked first in the country.

The department works hard to provide an undergraduate experience that balances classroom learning and experiential learning. And, it all begins before students even begin their first year.

Now in its third year, up to 20 incoming freshmen participate in FPOP, the Freshman Pre-Orientation Program, a four-day, on-campus introduction to materials science that takes place the week before the official new student orientation week. Older students in the department pushed to get FPOP started, noting that materials science tends not to be on a high schooler’s radar. The program is a faculty-upperclassmen collaboration, with faculty providing lectures in the morning and upperclassmen following up with lab activities. The theme is the “past, present and future” of materials.

The acronymic opportunities continue throughout the undergrad years with UROP, UPOP, MADMEC and IAP. Respectively those are: Undergraduate Research Opportunities Research Program, Undergraduate Practice Opportunities, Making and Designing Materials Engineering Contest and Independent Activities Program.

The model for integrating undergrads into university research groups started about 30 years ago when MIT started UROP. Professor Yet-Ming-Chiang, an ACerS Fellow, was among the early-on participants during his MIT materials undergrad days and credits the program with sparking his love of materials science and research, “That experience is what really got me interested in research,” he said. Almost all undergrads participate at some time during their tenures, either for credit or as a part-time job. At the end of the year, UROP projects are evaluated the American Idol way, with professors rating the projects and freshmen providing the “live audience” input.

Many students hear about materials science through the department’s inorganic chemistry course, “Introduction to Solid State Chemistry,” which is taken by about 500 freshman per year. Because the course satisfies the chemistry requirement for several majors, the department goes out of its way to assign its best TAs to the course, and it has become an important vehicle for recruiting materials majors.

Prospective majors also are introduced to materials science and engineering through events during the year, including open houses and hands-on classes in January’s IAP. Materials-based IAP classes include things like casting, welding, blacksmithing and glass blowing, and enrollment priority is given to DMSE majors and freshmen.

Students at MIT choose a major at the end of their first year (also unique to MIT, first-year students are not assigned grades). The department now attracts about 50 students per class, up from 35 per class in recent years. As to the enrollment increase, Angelita Mireles, academic administrator, laughs and says “teaching and research are to blame!”

Chiang observed that the department has consistently attracted a larger proportion of women than others have. In fact, this year the undergrad enrollment is just over 50 percent women. Mireles says the larger number of women on the faculty, all of whom teach undergraduate courses, is a major factor. “Students themselves see other women, and it makes them feel a little more comfortable in the field.” Also, she said, the students recruit each other, and the department sees a lot of synergy between women working with each other.”

The junior/senior year design course is used to introduced the elements of design, although it is also used to probe material properties and teach characterization. By the end of the course, students design and execute an advanced material, device or prototype.

For students with an artistic bent and strong lungs, glassblowing classes are offered through the glass lab. The lab is its own entity, but is housed in the department with Prof. Mike Cima serving as faculty advisor. The lab is staffed by professional glassblowers and glass artists, providing students the “opportunity to learn from the very best,” says Chiang. In the 20 years, these classes have become so popular that enrollment is set by lottery. In the fall, the lab has a Great Glass Pumpkin Patch event, where over 1000 glass pumpkins and gourds are sold to the general public. This year’s event is on Oct. 1, but get there early: Last year the Patch sold out in just four hours.

The department has 34 tenure-track faculty and a supported research budget of about $40 million. Faculty involved in ceramic materials research include Chiang, Cima, Harry Tuller and Linn Hobbs. Former department head, Subra Suresh, has taken a leave of absence to head-up the National Science Foundation.