Materials as a Bridge between Science, Engineering, and Design

Materials as a Bridge between Science, Engineering, and Design

Arlindo Silva (University of Lisbon, Portugal)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8183-5.ch015


This chapter explores the idea of using the topic of materials as a bridge between three fields of knowledge: materials science, mechanical engineering and product design. It discusses ways in which the teaching of materials to diverse student audiences can be enhanced. For example, how a course is to be taught by materials scientists to product designers where the instructor has a fundamentally different notion of what materials are compared to the students' perception of what materials are and how they can be used in their future profession. A broader vision of what the materials discipline means needs to be acknowledged in order to build a common materials education thread. The chapter presents the visions of three common materials user groups – materials scientists, mechanical engineers, and product designers – and highlights the differences and similarities amongst them in the context of developing further materials knowledge and education.
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It sometimes feels like materials scientists, mechanical engineers and product designers live on different planets. They usually study in different departments often located in different buildings and campuses. They use different technical languages, have different learning and academic styles and their materials courses have different areas of emphases. This chapter argues that these professionals are all a potential part of the same team and need similar skills, albeit disguised under different roles. Each group works within a design context, whether it is designing the latest new material or experiment or manufacturing process or the latest electronic device. Each party has a contribution to the process of making life, easier, more pleasurable and increasingly more sustainable. The work of each also acts as inspiration and a source of innovation to the others. New materials enable game changing products, while new products demand new and optimized materials.

Students of each engineering discipline need to be able to move seamlessly between the world of creating, building and testing, and the hypothetical world of models, design requirements and equations. Materials scientists tend to start at the microscopic level and work up. Product designers tend to start at the macro level and work down. Engineers are in the middle, needing to understand both heat treatments and macro structures for example. Everyone needs to learn how to navigate the Design Cycle - conceive, design, implement, and operate - not just theoretically, but also taking stakeholders into account and working in teams (Dym, Agogino, Eris, Frey, & Leifer, 2005; Silva, Pereira-Medrano, Melia, Ashby, & Fry, 2012).

The overall vision of the importance of materials in today’s economy should be present in the education of future scientists, designers and engineers; especially in general materials courses taught to non-materials specialists (see Figure 1). They will often be responsible for selecting materials for various products/systems and need to be able to grasp the economic, social and environmental implications that their decisions may have in the future, as practicing engineers, scientists or designers.

Figure 1.

The past and present of materials, from alchemy, tradition and empiricism to materials science and engineering

Teaching materials within a design context has been shown to provide a strong motivation for both students and teachers (Silva, Fontul, & Henriques, 2014, in press; Silva, Fry, Arimoto, & Ashby, 2012). This design context/approach helps in engaging students in meaningful discussions and in establishing connections between science, engineering, design and society. A common education platform is suggested in this chapter as an enabler for the interdisciplinary systems thinking required to support these discussions.



The subject of materials can be traced more than 4000 years back in history. The discipline has a history way longer than that of any of the ‘disciplines’ shown in Figure 1 (Sass, 2011). It evolved from the use of clay to early metallurgy, which was itself informed by alchemy and by tradition enshrined in folklore. Today, the subject sits at the intersection of physics, chemistry, geo and bio sciences, environmental science, and engineering – that is to say as a bridge between the applied sciences and the pure sciences. This breadth is unusual and makes the subject uniquely well-placed to contribute to the solution of many of today’s challenges, particularly by the following ways:

Key Terms in this Chapter

TEES: An acronym for Technical, Economic, Environmental and Social issues.

Materials as a Bridge: Using materials that are pertinent to different disciplines as a bridge for better communication among individual professionals with different backgrounds and discourses.

Top-Down Materials Approach: An approach to the teaching of materials which starts from a real-life product and deconstructs it into material requirements.

Bottom-Up Materials Approach: An approach to the teaching of materials which starts with the atoms and builds up to crystal structures, and how they affect material properties eventually ending up in the analysis of real-life products.

Design Cycle: A way of designing that is pervasive across multiple disciplines.

CDIO: An acronym for Conceiving, Designing, Implementing and Operating that refers to a method of teaching and learning that involves considering the different phases of creating a particular system or product.

Design-Led Approach to Materials: This approach is basically the same as top-down materials approach.

Materials Education Platform: This refers to a common teaching and learning tool built around the knowledge needed by each professional about materials, exploiting similarities among product designers, mechanical engineers and materials scientists.

Materials Systems and Design: A way of teaching and learning materials science and engineering that encompasses and integrates knowledge from multiple disciplines.

Science-Led Approach to Materials: This approach is basically the same as bottom-up materials approach.

Grand Challenges: A set of challenges devised by several professional associations across the world at the turn of the century to bring the attention of the general public and of professionals to the pressing problems of society, especially to sustainability and issues associated to the overuse of materials.

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