Teach your children well…

I spent a large chunk of today as part of the review panel of a project being conducted by the UK Centre for Materials Education, working on behalf of the Higher Education Authority to evaluate the student learning experience in the discipline of materials science.

Earlier meetings had been taken up with the analysis of date provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. I say analysis, but much of it was reconciling apparently contradictory data and trying to extract answers to simple question from it. Interesting facts like “more people take materials courses than apply for them” led to the realisation that many get in under clearing. I developed a growing regard for those engaged on the project during this phase of their work!!

This meeting was much more interesting, in that they had carried out a twin track survey of students and departments about the business of learning. The first question they asked was how many materials courses are there. Needless to say, the answer was highly complex. At the departmental level the team had to define what actually constituted a materials course. The increasing customisation of university courses had led to many multidisciplinary courses with elements of many traditional disciplines. So 19 universities offer 82 separate courses with over 60% of materials content, 7 of those universities plus another 2 between them offer another 20 courses with between 40 and 60% materials content and 14 of the 21 universities offer another 103 courses with less than 40% of materials content.

Next they asked the students what they had learned, how useful it was and whether there should be more of it!! The overwhelming bulk of the student responses (which totalled 109) came from those who had graduated in the last 10 years. Questions on how they developed an interest in and/or chose to take a materials course, or what their job title was once employed, or whether they could have got their current job without a materials qualification did not produce startling revelations – these people are all in the “materials world” still.

What did provoke conversation was a question on how the graduates saw the relative importance of the various components of materials knowledge – the basic bits got the highest ratings, with the more modern aspects of design and sustainability getting less appreciation.

The returns from the universities were also a mixture of the expected and the surprising. It looks like achieving a Bachelors degree requires about 600 hours of work and a Masters needs about 800 – at least that’s consistent. In addition there needs to be about an equal amount of private study!! Lectures and tutorials are spread evenly through the course, but (sadly) practical work drops off steeply after the first year. Most have 3 or 4 industrial visits during their course. Exams account for about half of the assessment with individual and group project work making up the bulk of the rest. What was fascinating was the comparison of what the students thought (with hindsight) was useful and what the universities thought was useful. Of course there were detailed differences but the overall impression I got from the data was that universities were teaching students what thye needed for a career in materials science.

We are a long way from the final report but my impression at this point is that once a person has made a decision to study materials, the UK university system actually gives them what they need. The problem seems to lie before this point in the educational process. Young people just do not see the value, to themselves, of a career in materials science. That raises the next really big question – what can we do about this?

Materials UK
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