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University to offer new major
in metallurgy and materials
May 3, 1999

Materials engineers, says John Morral, head of the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Engineering, regularly rate among the highest paid professionals in the field. But, he says, industry can't get enough of them.

Within the next decade, he hopes to change that situation. On April 21, his department took a big step in the right direction, gaining the approval of the state Board of Governors for Higher Education to begin offering courses leading to a bachelor's degree in engineering with a major in metallurgy and materials.

It will be the only undergraduate program of its type at a public university in New England and will be one of only three in the region, public or private, to offer the program. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Worcester Polytechnic Institute are the others.

"We get calls all the time from industry," Morral says, "and they tell me they have to go all the way out to Chicago or further to find people."

Although every product ever made begins life as some type of material, Morral says the study of those materials - primarily metals, ceramics or polymers - has never been a high-profile topic. The products, seemingly, just appear.

But, he says, they didn't roll off the production line, or even get on the line, until materials engineers had decided whether the components should be solid or flexible, lightweight or heavy, heat-resistant or able to survive sub-zero temperatures. And, of course, as inexpensive to produce as possible.

"Materials engineering is an enabling technology," Morral says. "You can't build a jet engine to run at 1,200 degrees centigrade unless a materials engineer has found a material that can sustain that temperature." And there is always room for improvement, he adds.

"Every time the space shuttle returns from a mission, it takes weeks to repair the ceramic tiles on the shuttle that have been degraded by the heat created on reentry. NASA and the airline industry would love to have a vehicle they could send right back up but, so far, nobody has found a material capable of withstanding that," he says.

There are currently 11 professors in Morral's department and, as some faculty retire, the focus on materials engineering will sharpen, he says.

Until then, current faculty will pick up the about 10 new courses that will be required to make the materials curriculum meet the standards set by the department.

He said some faculty in the Institute of Materials Science who specialize in polymers - plastics - also will teach courses in the major. He hopes to start the program with about 20 students, primarily freshmen and sophomores, eventually expanding the program to about 100 majors, as freshmen learn of and apply for admission to the program.

The School of Engineering, for more than 30 years, has offered master's and doctoral programs in metallurgy and materials engineering. Now the school will be able to offer degrees at all college levels.

Richard Veilleux