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Materials Science & Engineering students learn real-world software skills in new course

| Ying Ma

Our modern society depends critically on materials. Various materials, including metals, ceramics, semiconductors and polymers, underpin virtually everything around us. Materials processing involves the forming and shaping of materials with specific properties and function for everything from a plastic water bottle to a jet engine.

“As consumers, we don’t normally pay attention to how materials are processed and integrated into a product, however, materials processing is extremely important.” says Dr. Ying Ma, Assistant Professor of Materials Science & Engineering. “Even a minor change in the processing history can lead to significant improvements in the performance of the final product.” For example, if we cool steel quickly, we can increase the strength and hardness of the steel for applications like tools and other machine parts. It is critical to understand the physics and chemistry associated with various materials processing techniques, which is a major topic of research and development, known as transport phenomena.

As the curriculum for the new Materials Science & Engineering program is being rolled out, MSE 372 Transport Phenomena, a course that introduces transport phenomena and their applications in industry, is being offered for the first time in Spring 2018. It is co-developed and co-taught by Dr. Ma and Dr. Paul Thomas, Professor of Physics. From the inception of the course, Drs. Ma and Thomas collaboratively planned the curriculum and the topics covered. “It’s been a very satisfying professional experience to combine our teaching approaches on this very timely and important course,” says Thomas.

Students also benefited from the complementary expertise of the two instructors. “Having two instructors available to facilitate a broad and diverse learning environment was an invaluable resource,” says Tristin King, a sophomore in Materials Science & Engineering.

The study of transport phenomena is extremely important, but at the same time, it can be very challenging. Materials processing often involves many different physical or chemical processes that are coupled. An example is the casting of metals, a manufacturing process in which a liquid metal is poured into a mold and solidifies, to make everything from the engine block of a car to a single bolt. It sounds simple enough, however, it involves the flow of liquid, phase change from liquid to solid, and transfer of heat. “Although we know all the physics involved in casting, the equations are just too complicated for us to find an analytical solution,” explains Ma, “which is why computer simulations have now been routinely used in industry to refine their manufacturing processes.”

Both COMSOL and MATLAB are used in MSE 372. Students use these programs to study real-world materials processing techniques and complex materials science problems. Laura Cullen, a Materials Science & Engineering sophomore, says “Although challenging, I have enjoyed learning the advanced programs of MATLAB and COMSOL. These programs allow for more realistic results for more complex problems; problems that we will have to face in graduate school and/or our future careers”.

This course is also available to other STEM majors who have completed MATH 312 Differential Equations and Linear Algebra. Topics discussed in MSE 372 have many industrial applications beyond materials processing. In fact, transport phenomena are observed in biological systems, chemical reactions, and astrophysics, just to name a few.

 “MSE 372 has been extremely helpful to other courses that I have taken throughout the engineering major. I have never felt so accomplished as to be able to take this complex course and be able to apply my newly learned skills to other similar areas of study,” says Brynn Dallmann, a junior in Materials Science & Engineering.

For more information, please contact Dr. Ma ( or Dr. Thomas (