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September 8th, 2011

Materials football game of the week: Purdue vs. Rice

Published on September 8th, 2011 | By: Eileen De Guire

The Game
Purdue at Rice
Sept. 10, 3:30 p.m., ET; Houston, Texas

Rice begins its 100th football season with a golden “NASAversary” celebration commemorating its 50-year collaboration with the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. In a September 1962 speech at Rice Stadium, President John F. Kennedy said famously, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The astronaut who embodied the country’s answer to that challenge was Purdue graduate, Neil Armstrong. Together Purdue and Rice have produced 60 astronauts, all of whom trained in Houston.

Purdue enters the fourth meeting of these squads with a 2-1 series lead. The last time these teams met was in 1998 when a relatively unknown Texan, Drew Brees, led the Boilermakers to a 21-19 victory in West Lafayette.

My pick? Purdue by a touchdown.

The home team
Rice University, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

Rice University is well known for its research programs in nanomaterials and composite materials, and in a way, the undergraduate materials engineering program mirrors that strength: It is small and mixed into a larger department to which it makes strong contributions.

Senior Henry Neilson helped build a nano-fatigue tester to use on flexible electronics. Credit: Rice University

Senior Henry Neilson helped build a nano-fatigue tester to use on flexible electronics. Credit: Rice University

The undergraduate curriculum has one eye on fundamental science and the other on advanced applications. As Prof. Enrique Barrera describes, “We are a structure-property relations program with significant teaching in nanotechnology.” That’s what drew senior Robby Palm into the program, “I liked MSCI because it’s sort of the “interdisciplinary” engineering field—the focus on relating macroscale observations/behavior with atomic-scale events/phenomena allows you to work in a wide variety of arenas.”

And, Rice works hard to get its undergrads into a wide variety of arenas. Locally, there are strong connections with the Medical Center, Schlumberger, Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments and the Johnson Space Center and its contractors. Students work with these companies during their senior design project. Simulating a real-world job hunt, Barrera says seniors “have to make the connection with a prospective company, explain their role and how much time will be involved.” “Even the shy students,” he says, “learn not to rely on email and how to make face-to-face contact.”

Long before senior year undergrads are offered a cornucopia of hands-on experiences. The Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen is an innovative industry-university incubator where students participate in all aspects of design and get to use CAD/CAM, rapid prototyping, a fully equipped machine shop, etc.

Undergrads are active in professors’ research groups, and not just in materials. Junior Olivia Derr said in an email, “…Materials are in everything, so you could get involved in electrical or mechanical or chemistry or whatever else you wanted.”

Derr and Palm found that working in a research group can take them in unexpected directions. Both spent a summer in China working on alternative energy projects in the labs of their professors’ Chinese collaborators. The next step for most Rice BS materials graduates is graduate school.

The Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science has about 145 undergraduates, and about ten of the juniors and senior have declared themselves as materials science majors. (Rice does not do an official head count until after the must-declare deadline at the end of the sophomore year.) There are 16 faculty and a little over 90 graduate students. The most recent addition to the materials faculty is Edwin (Ned) Thomas, who had been chair of the MIT’s materials science department and became dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering in July. Faculty engaged in ceramic science research are Enrique Barrera and Andrew Barron.

An unusual feature of the department is that it also offers a BA in materials science. Barrera explained, “The BA degree is designed for students planning on law school, medical school or some other professional school. The BS degree is for those who want to stay in technical careers.” The BA also makes it easier for students to choose materials science as a second major, he said.

According to the 2012 Princeton Review, Rice boasts having the happiest students for the third consecutive year, but they may have some of the most ferocious, too. Derr shared in an email that “Powderpuff football is huge on campus.” She was “knocked out” last year and had to sit out half the season, but the wide receiver/cornerback admitted she is “really excited to get back out there this year and get the Violent Femmes back in the playoffs.” No doubt, gridiron victory will make her even happier.

The visitors
Purdue University, Materials Engineering

SURF’s up! The lack of big water in West Lafayette, Ind., notwithstanding, it’s something returning Purdue engineering undergrads might be heard saying at the end of the summer if they had participated in the Student Undergraduate Research Fellow program on campus.

Senior Lisa Behrens describes her senior project to Purdue alum and astronaut, Michael McCulley. Credit: Purdue University

Senior Lisa Behrens describes her senior project to Purdue alum and astronaut, Michael McCulley. Credit: Purdue University

The 1,900 or so incoming first year engineering Boilermakers might be confused at first, but not for long. The first-year experience of engineering is carefully constructed to guide students through a process of investigation and discovery. In fact, no freshman at Purdue has a specific engineering major; all are required to learn about each department and each branch of engineering before making a choice.

This approach is an advantage for departments, such as Materials Engineering, says Vicki Cline, undergraduate advisor. “Lots of students haven’t heard of materials engineering before. A lot of students interested in chemical engineering come to materials because it is more hands-on. They want to make something.”

Through a series of seminars, open houses, faculty presentations and labs, freshmen learn about the department. Cline says “Our undergraduates are the best recruiting tools we’ve got. They are very engaging, very excited and satisfied with their major. When freshmen encounter them, it’s like ‘wow’!”

Cline says the advantage of Purdue’s first year approach is that the retention rate of materials majors is very high, “If students leave the major it is almost always because they have a whole different interest. Most transfer to management.”

The current sophomore–junior–senior enrollment in materials engineering is 130. The department has 23 tenure-track faculty and just over 80 graduate students.

The materials engineering program is one of the most lab-oriented programs on campus and is not limited to coursework. Undergraduates are encouraged to get involved in research programs like SURF. Cline says the department considers it a priority because it helps students evaluate graduate school as a post-graduate option, and it helps guide their technical elective choices.

Prof. Carol Handwerker (ACerS Fellow and former member of the Society’s board of directors) notes that faculty benefit, too, from having undergrads in the lab. For one, they provide real-time feedback about teaching and seeing connections between the lecture hall and the physical world. She also says, “Undergrads are more adept at using programs like MATLAB and Mathematica. They are good at working with GUI interfaces and creating tools for the whole group.”

A team approach is used for the senior research project. Groups of 4-5 students spend the fall term working with their industry sponsor to study a problem via site visits and plant tours. They study the problem and generate a proposal. Then, in the spring, they collect samples, analyze data, etc. and present the project to the industry sponsors and peers. As would be expected in the Midwest, the program sponsors are largely from the heavy manufacturing sector: Cummins Engine, Rolls-Royce, Arcelor-Mittal, Corning, Alcoa and others.

The materials department ascribes to the concept of the “global engineer,” and has study abroad programs established with Imperial College in London, Tohoko University in Sendai, Japan and an internship program with KTH in Stockholm.

It should also be noted that Purdue is a partner institution, through its Civil Engineering Department, in the Center for Advanced Cement-Based Materials, and has a number of faculty and programs with a cements focus.

In general, the most popular course, by far, is a wine appreciation class taught by the food science department. Competition to get one of the 450 spots each semester is reportedly fierce even though the course is very rigorous, covering geography, history, economics, marketing and, of course, sampling.

Purdue does not offer a music major, so the 350-piece Boilermaker Marching Band is comprised of undergrads from all over campus, and quite a few materials engineering students are involved. In 2010 it was the first Big Ten band to be invited to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Faculty involved in ceramic materials research include Handwerker, John Blendell, Rod Trice, Kevin Trumble, Elliott Slamovich, Edwin García, Carlos Martinez and Lia Stanciu.


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