Education for life
The following dialogue between a
knowledgeable and eager potential student and a successful high-flying recent
undergraduate in materials science was overhead in the subway last week:
Knowledgeable, eager, enthusiastic
novice: After a really good guest lecture at high school the other day, I’m
convinced that materials provide the foundations of modern society and I’d like
to study materials science at university.
Successful high-flying recent
undergraduate: That’s a coincidence – I’ve just graduated in materials science
from one of the country’s top universities.
KEEN: Perhaps you can tell me about your
experiences. I learned that the most-used materials in the world are concrete,
brick, stone and steel, so presumably most of your time was devoted to these
SHRUG: Not at all. We had one course on
steel – it took about 3% of our study time – but nobody mentioned concrete or
KEEN: So I guess you spent more time on
the other major materials – wood, clay and whiteware ceramics, glass, leather,
paper and textiles? I understand that the world uses more leather than zinc,
SHRUG: Actually it’s about the same
tonnage of zinc and leather, but hey, who’s counting?
KEEN: I bet handbags sell for more
dollars per kg than brass! There seem to be lots of cool new materials around;
potato chips come in paper which looks like metal, and my sister just got a new
sports car with what she calls goniochromic paint – it seems to be a different
colour depending on the direction you look at it. How do they work?
SHRUG: No idea –we didn’t do paint or
KEEN: So what materials did you study?
SHRUG: I don’t remember any course which
was devoted to a particular material, but we did have a couple called “polymers”
and one on “ceramics”. I’m not sure that I know how to make a plastic bucket or
a washbasin, but I do know how crystals deform and how it is we can use a
reactive metal such as aluminium for saucepans. And a few of the staff were
very enthusiastic about silicon for chips.
KEEN: OK, so let’s accept that you
don’t know anything about the 600 million tonnes of paper we use every year, but
you do know why we use 16 million tonnes of copper and a few tonnes of silicon.
What else did you learn?
SHRUG: We did maths for two years, so I
can solve a second order partial differential equation – or at least I could two
KEEN: I assume that you had to use that
sort of stuff in your last year or two at university and in your current job.
SHRUG: Oh no, no at all. I did a
project on nickel-based superalloys with lots of microscopy, measuring
precipitate sizes and so on. I guess I had to calculate an average now and
again. In my new job I do materials selection using some nifty software, and I
have to work out why some components failed, but I never have to do any
KEEN: I did a bit of homework on
professional qualifications and several professional bodies told me that
“design” is a key part of all engineering education. How does this fit into
SHRUG: I’m not sure. I had to spend a
week making a steel bracket in “workshop practice”, but I’m sure I didn’t design
it. I did hear about alloy design in a third-year course but none of the Mech
Eng students seemed to know what this was.
KEEN: I bet it was exciting finding out
a load of things for yourself. I guess you use the internet a lot, as well as
SHRUG: Yes, it’s very easy to find a lot
of information and then cut and paste it into your report, but the professors
were very negative about most of our findings – they accused us of using other
peoples’ words and ideas and kept referring to it as plagiarism.
KEEN: So how is life different now you
are working in industry?
SHRUG: It’s fun. My boss keeps sending
me off to find out what other people are doing (sometimes quite discreetly when
it’s work in another company). He seems pleased when I put all this stuff into
KEEN: Isn’t that what you just called
plagiarism? So did your education prepare you for life in industry?
SHRUG: A good plagiarised answer might
be “Up to a point, Lord Copper”.
Peter Goodhew, April 2006