The Game
University of Illinois at Pennsylvania State University
Oct. 29, 3:30 p.m., ET

I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an undergrad because it met my three criteria: I was accepted, it was affordable and it was far enough from home. Much later, I realized I had stumbled and bumbled my way into one of the best engineering schools in the country.

I decided on engineering out of stubbornness. None of the girls in my high school class were considering STEM careers, but most of the boys were. So, that was that. (My journey to ceramic engineering was thought through a little more sensibly.)

In my first job, I had the good fortune to work with a couple of great recent graduates of Penn State. Penn State had just clinched its first national championship by defeating Georgia at the 1983 Sugar Bowl, and there was plenty of football chatter to go around. One of those guys, Jeff Swab, distinguished himself by being first in line for tickets to the Sugar Bowl. Jeff has since distinguished himself in many other ways and is a leading expert on ceramic armor and a frequent contributor to ACerS meetings and publications.

Penn State became the 11th of the 12 teams that comprise the Big Ten Conference in 1990. Illinois is a charter member of the conference, which dates back to 1896.

Saturday is the 19th meeting of these two teams, and Penn State holds a dominating 14-4 record. But, last year the Illini handed the Nittany Lions a searing 33-13 loss, the first Illinois victory at Beaver Stadium. Both teams are strong in the Big Ten, but Illinois is hungrier as it looks for a rebound Saturday after losing the last two games.

My pick? Victory, Illinois! Varsity! (From “Hail to the Orange,” Illinois’ Alma Mater song. “We love no other”)

The home team

Penn State students demonstrate lab safety best practices in an uptempo YouTube video. Credit: Penn State University

Penn State students demonstrate lab safety best practices in an up-tempo YouTube video (see link in story). Credit: Penn State University.

Pennsylvania State University, Materials Science and Engineering

Joe Paterno, the “80-is-the-new-50” head coach of the Penn State football, doesn’t tolerate end zone celebration shenanigans when the team scores a touchdown. He says, “Act like you’ve been there before.”

He makes a good point, and one that is generally relevant. If you prepare well, work hard and have a clear goal, why should success be surprising? It’s a philosophy the department of materials science and engineering is embracing as they grow and adapt.

The materials science and engineering program at Penn State is arguably one of the best in the country, and it is especially strong in ceramic materials. Over the last ten years, the undergraduate enrollment has grown from 95 to 175. This is an impressive accomplishment considering that the department has plenty of competition from the other 20 or so engineering programs at Penn State, and considering that the department is not housed in the College of Engineering, but in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Prof. Allen Kimel says the placement of the department in CEMS is a challenge, but “the college is a really unique blend of engineering and physical sciences, and that strengthens us.”

It does mean, though, that the department has to work a little harder to get the attention of prospective students, but once it does, Kimel says students will respond with “Oh my, there’s materials science!” Students hear about the program through word-of-mouth, introductory courses and open houses. Nearly 40 percent of the students that graduate with BS MSE degrees start in another program. Kimel says ASM’s Materials Camp is proving to be a great way to get high schoolers thinking about materials, too.

Another unique attribute of Penn State is that is has 19 Commonwealth campuses and as much as 27 percent of the student body transfers to the main campus after two years elsewhere. The department maintains close connections to the six regional campuses whose programs lead to materials science.

It was an open house that drew in senior Erica Marden, “I went to an open house and was fascinated with the biomaterial and noninvasive drug delivery research projects in the department.” She continues, “I went into MatSE because of an interest in biomaterials, and I have continued to pursue that interest by doing research involving polymers for biological applications.”

Marden’s journey illustrates an emerging trend among undergraduates. Today’s students are motivated by the kind of problems they want to work on, often with grand-scale impacts like energy or biomedicine, or by the technologies they want to learn more about like nanotechnology. Kimel says, “Students don’t come in saying ‘Wow – ceramics!’ but ‘How are materials applied to the problems I care about?'”

Recognizing this, the department is in the process of overhauling the curriculum. The new curriculum will continue to provide depth for which it’s known, while increasing versatility and flexibility. Parts of the new curriculum are in place now, and full rollout is expected in the next academic year.

Penn State’s long standing tradition of the senior thesis will continue, and there are several pathways open to getting the research done. The most direct pathway is to work in a faculty research group, typically for two semesters. Marden has been an active student researcher for four years and says, “The best part of Penn State’s program is the quality of research and renowned faculty paired with the amazing staff and small size of the department.”

The new curriculum opens an option for students to work on engineering team-based projects in the College of Engineering’s Learning Factory, which is expected to appeal to the 50 percent of students that go to work in industry after graduation.

Adventurous students may choose to go abroad for a research experience. The department has exchange partnerships with 14 institutions in 10 countries. The focus is research – no coursework – and about a dozen students per year are involved, half from Penn State going abroad and half coming to Penn State from abroad.

No doubt, Paterno would be pleased to know that the MSE undergrads know how to handle themselves in their arena: the lab. This video clip on lab safety tells the story!

The department has sprouted a few athletes over the years including Big 10 triple-jump champion, Clarence Smith, who now works at Boeing, and the men’s volleyball head coach, Mark Pavlik. One suspects they would have agreed with Marden, though, “Penn State football is so much fun, especially during White Out games. I’m hoping that we go out with a bang for my senior year!”

Faculty engaged in ceramic research include Paul Brown (Fellow), David Green (Fellow and editor of JACerS), John Hellmann (Fellow), Kimel, Gary Messing (ACerS past-president and Fellow), Carlo Pantano (Fellow), Clive Randall (Fellow and 2011 Friedberg lecturer) and Susan Trolier-McKinstry (ACerS’ Ceramic Education Council 2011 Outstanding Educator awardee).

The visitors
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Materials Science & Engineering

Undergrads at a department picnic earlier this year. The red Material Advantage tee-shirts say “Defense Against the Liberal Arts.” Credit: University of Illinois

Undergrads at a department picnic earlier this year. The red Material Advantage T-shirts say “Defense Against the Liberal Arts.” Credit: University of Illinois.

“Without materials, there is no engineering,” senior Xiaolin Zhang said in an email. It’s an idea that seems to resonate among undergraduates at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Just under 400 students are enrolled in the MatSE department at Illinois, making it the largest department in the country for undergraduate materials education. (GA Tech is the largest based on number of faculty – 57 to Illinois’ 26 – but draws 100 fewer students.)

The department is “on its game,” when it comes to recruiting. It starts reaching out to high school students in their junior year, sending brochures to prospective students with strong ACT scores and sponsoring open houses for candidates and their families in the fall. This year, the prospective student open house attracted 79 students and, with their familial entourages along, 230 people went on undergrad-led tours of the buildings and labs, saw demonstrations, talked to professors and enjoyed the hospitality of the department.

Also important to getting the word out is the long-standing Engineering Open House tradition. Held every March, all College of Engineering departments throw open the doors and strut their stuff. Cindy Brya, an administrator in the department, says the “hallways are jam packed with student projects and visitors.”

EOH was Zhang’s introduction to materials science. Then a freshman, she said the EOH “exhibits from the Materials Science department interested me a lot with a broad range of applications. Considering my interests and strengths in math, chemistry and physics, I though materials science would be ideal for me.”

The first three years of the curriculum are uniform, and in the fourth year students take coursework in an area of concentration. There are five: biomaterials, ceramics, electronic materials, metals and polymers. However, students can explore interests long before the fourth year by participating in undergraduate research. Zhang, for example, has been working on 3D polymeric scaffolds for tissue engineering applications. Describing the value of the experience, she says it “further strengthens my research ability and critical thinking skills, which prepare me to become a better researcher in graduate school.”

Brya says abut 40 percent of graduates go to professional or graduate school. Zhang points out that joining a research group can help students discern their next steps. “Many students join a research group sometime during their four-year study and will either find their research interest or decide a better niche for them would be in industry. The resources are always available and are to the student’s benefit.”

Research opportunities can have spillover effects, though. Last year and this year, the Illinois contingent to MS&T has been mixing things up at the annual Mug Drop contest with mugs made of geopolymers. See how in this video segment from MS&T 2011.

Ceramic pigs from ceramic engineering Pig Roasts of the 80s. Credit: E. De Guire

Handcrafted ceramic pigs from ceramic engineering Pig Roasts of the 80s. Credit: E. De Guire

Like many MatSE departments, the Illinois department is the result of a marriage between metallurgical engineering and ceramic engineering. The ceramic engineering heritage lives on in the “ceramic pig” tradition. “Back in the day,” the Cer. E. department used to celebrate the end of the year with a pig roast. This evolved into the “Pig Roast” event of the 1970-1980s era, where students put on good-natured skits to commemorate the year’s events and rib the professors. Everyone looked forward to bringing home a handmade ceramic pig. Today, students make ceramic pigs, which are given as mementos to deserving faculty and staff at the annual awards banquet.

Of this weekend’s game, Zhang says, “I am expecting an exciting game this week against Penn State.”

Me, too. Go Illini!

Faculty that focus on ceramic materials are Shen Dillon, Trudy Kriven (Fellow), Jennifer Lewis (Fellow), Lane Martin and Jian-Min Zuo.