What is Materials Engineering?
New materials have been among the greatest achievements of every age and they have been central to the growth, prosperity, security, and quality of life of humans since the beginning of history. It is always new materials that open the door to new technologies, whether they are in civil, chemical, construction, nuclear, aeronautical, agricultural, mechanical, biomedical or electrical engineering.
Materials scientists and engineers continue to be at the forefront of all of these and many other areas of science, too. Materials science and engineering influences our lives each time we buy or use a new device, machine, or structure. (You can read more about the impact of this exciting field in our list of suggested readings.) The definition of the academic field of Materials Science & Engineering stems from a realization concerning every application of materials: it is the properties of the material that give it value. A material may be chosen for its strength, its electrical properties, resistance to heat or corrosion, or a host of other reasons; but they all relate to properties.
Experience shows that all of the useful properties of a material are intimately related to its structure, at all levels, including which atoms are present, how the atoms are joined, and how groups of atoms are arranged throughout the material. Most importantly, we learn how this structure, and the resulting properties, are controlled by the processing of the material.
Finally materials must perform their tasks in an economical and societally responsible manner. Understanding the relationships between properties, structure, processing and performance makes the Materials Engineer the master of the engineering universe.
What's in a Name?
We are the School of Materials Engineering, at Purdue.
At most other universities, these days, materials are studied in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, a name that has gradually become standardized since it was first coined at Northwestern University, in the 1960's. The predecessors of all these departments of Materials Science & Engineering, were typically departments of Metallurgy, Metallurgical Engineering, Mining, Ceramics, and so on. And, yes, this was the School of Metallurgical Engineering in 1959 (when it became independent from the School of Chemical Engineering) and adopted its present name in 1973. For more information on the first years of MSE see Chapter 1 of "A History of the School of Materials Engineering" by Mysore Dayananda.
So why are we a "School" instead of a "Department?" And why have we no "Science" in our name?
It's partly a matter of tradition, and partly a reflection of our particular style. (Our undergraduate degree is the Bachelor of Engineering in Materials Science and Engineering, and this gives us our familiar three letter campus code or designator "MSE." Even this is sometimes written as "MsE" acknowledging the difference between the School's name and that of the degree.)
School or Department?
Academic units at Purdue may be Schools or Departments. Generally speaking, Schools are larger, more independent and more powerful - something like Colleges on many large university campuses. The right to award degrees is vested only in the Schools. The School of Liberal Arts has Departments such as English and Philosophy, and the School of Science has Departments of Physics, Chemistry, Math and Biology. But the College of Engineering comprises eleven schools, and two departments. We take pride in the title, which reflects a certain independence of style. This is embodied in our unique approach to the teaching of Materials.
Why no Science?
Well, we do teach a lot of science. Campus legend has it that there was once an objection to the already powerful Schools of Engineering venturing into the hallowed field of Science but, in fact, the title reflects our approach to materials - that we study them because of their engineering utility, not their scientific beauty. This is not to say that we are above stopping and smelling the scientific "roses," and much of what we see in our microscopes is, indeed, truly beautiful. We just begin with the question "how could you make that?" and lead up to "why does it work?" rather than going the other way around. The emphasis on Engineering is not in opposition to science, it is just the fundamental reason for doing what we do, and it is appropriately reflected in our name.