The 'engineering of stuff' comes to UW-Eau Claire

| Shari Lau

Ever wonder how snowboards get lighter and faster every year? Or how television screens get thinner and clearer? Well, a materials science and engineering graduate may be responsible.

As modern technology advances at a rapid rate, consumers constantly look for the next product that's bigger, better, faster and greener.  

To prepare students for careers in the science and technology that goes into creating those products, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire will offer a new degree in materials science and engineering beginning in fall 2016. The UW System Board of Regents approved the new degree program on June 5.

Materials science and engineering applies the tools of basic science with an engineering component that seeks to understand the behavior of materials, their development and applications to modern technologies. In other words, it's the "science of stuff."

"The reason it's called the science of stuff is everything around us is made of materials, whether it be polymers, ceramics, metals or semiconductors," said Dr. Doug Dunham, director of the UW-Eau Claire Materials Science Center. "So when we're talking about materials science and engineering, we're talking about how we make those products, how we improve them and how we can make them more environmentally friendly. So it really is the science of everything around us — the science of stuff." 

Materials scientists and engineers have a passion for innovation, improving life and advancing modern technology, said Dr. Marc McEllistrem, materials science academic program director, who for the past two years has worked to author the degree proposal and create the new curriculum. They look beyond the fundamental science aspects and take their understanding and knowledge into application development in careers in a variety of private companies, national laboratories and universities. Graduates in the field find employment in microelectronics, energy production and storage, biomedical applications, aerospace, information technology, nanotechnology, manufacturing and materials production. 

The materials science and engineering degree is built upon the existing materials science program that provides students with a strong foundation in fundamental sciences and mathematics along with a liberal arts education — something professionals in industry are seeing as increasingly important, McEllistrem said. 

"Increasingly, the comment from industry is that students need that liberal arts education foundation," McEllistrem said. "It is just as important as the technical pieces. If students are gifted technically in the lab or as engineers in developing applications but can't work in social contexts and don't have an appreciation of different ways of thinking that a liberal education foundation provides, they will be ineffective and frustrated in their pursuits. I would like students to appreciate that as they look for a campus to provide them with an opportunity to develop a career, they look both at the technical side and at the liberal education side because both are critical to their success." 

Elizabeth Stubbs, a junior UW-Eau Claire materials science major from Maple Plain, Minnesota, is interested in pursuing a career in soft materials engineering and sees the value to future students of the new materials science and engineering degree. 

"The engineering aspect added to materials science gives you more applicable knowledge of the materials you're working with," Stubbs said. "It provides development of problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to solve issues you'll encounter throughout your career." 

UW-Eau Claire's materials science and engineering program also will provide students with access to the Materials Science Center, which houses state-of-the-art instrumentation, including a new confocal laser scanning microscope that produces high-resolution 3-D images. Due to the small student-to-professor ratio offered at UW-Eau Claire, students receive numerous hands-on experiences with the instrumentation, develop close relationships with faculty and have early research opportunities. 

"The difference between UW-Eau Claire's materials science and engineering program and other programs is our size," Dunham said. "Students receive personalized attention and individualized experiences. We know their names, and we know who they are. Because of that, we can also help identify projects for them in a field they're interested in instead of just having general projects they sign up for. If they're interested in going into polymers, we can find a project for them to work on for their whole undergraduate career. That helps them for the next step, whether it's going to graduate school or getting a job."

Students at UW-Eau Claire also are encouraged to begin research during their freshman year, an advantage that gives students a competitive edge for scholarships and awards, as well as for graduate school and job applications. For the 2014-15 academic year alone, the materials science program boasts a Rhodes scholar in Tayo Sanders, a Goldwater scholar in Stubbs and a Goldwater honorable mention in Kelsey Steinke. 

"I started conducting research my freshman year, and it has really helped me to develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills," said Steinke, a junior materials science major from Edgar. "I really saw it as a valuable opportunity and a great experience to have. In doing research, I am also able to use what I've learned in class outside of the classroom to apply it to applications. I've built a great relationship with my research professor. He has helped me a lot not only with research, but also with school and applying for scholarships. He's a really great resource to have. All the professors are like that with the students." 

Another aspect of UW-Eau Claire's materials science and engineering program that will prove valuable to students is the Materials Science Center's growing partnerships with local industry, which in turn provide internship and career opportunities for students. For more than 10 years, the center has partnered with private industry in the region, providing testing and research support to companies for product development. 

The launch of the materials science and engineering degree program has already brought additional interest from industry. Cardinal Glass in Menomonie is working with faculty to implement a new internship opportunity for students. Each year, two materials science and engineering students will be selected for a yearlong internship in the technical department at the Menomonie facility.  

"At Cardinal Glass, we want to help develop young adults to become more successful in our industry," said Kevin Nolan, human resource manager at Cardinal Glass. "Students will be getting some very valuable, practical hands-on experience in their field of study and will also position themselves for a potential full-time job within the glass industry upon graduating. The added element of the engineering component will benefit the students in the industry after graduation. Speaking from our point of view at Cardinal, we are looking for individuals with good problem-solving abilities, good communication skills — both written and verbal — and a basic understanding of glass. For the right individuals who are coachable and have a desire to learn, the possibilities are endless in our industry." 

In addition to internship possibilities, the materials science and engineering program also will involve industry partners in capstone projects, Dunham said. 

"Every senior completes a capstone project before they graduate," Dunham said. "What we really want to do is involve our partners to bring a real industrial project in here. We'll assign a group of students for that project, they'll complete the project, and then as part of their senior capstone they will present their findings to the company. That will give feedback to the company about the problem while also giving us feedback about the program, students' capabilities and things we may need to tweak or change to help the program." 

Students who come to UW-Eau Claire for a degree in materials science and engineering will work with proactive faculty who want their students to succeed and who will help in any way they can through research opportunities, internships, industry work and hands-on experience with state-of-the-art instrumentation, Dunham said. 

For more information about materials science and engineering at UW-Eau Claire, contact Dr. Marc McEllistrem at mcellimt@uwec.edu or 715-836-4081, or Dr. Doug Dunham at dunhamdj@uwec.edu or 715-836-5312.