Should we be teaching Materials Risk?

05-Mar-2014 11:24 AM

Mike Ashby

Posts: 0

What will our students be doing 10 years from now?  Teaching and research, like us?  A few.  Far more will be employed in materials-dependent industries; many of these will assume managerial roles charged with managing materials-related risk.  Disruption of the international trade in materials leads to price volatility and supply shortages, particularly serious when “critical” materials are involved.  (Critical materials are those that are of special importance for economic or strategic reasons.)  

There have been repeated examples of such disruption in the recent past.  These include:

  • Geopolitical action (Chinese restrictions of exports of rare earths; Indonesia’s restriction on the export of nickel ores)
  • Armed conflict (The Democratic Republic of the Congo, a major source of cobalt)
  • Industrial action (disruption of nickel and uranium supply from Australia and platinum from South Africa)
  • Economic boom (unanticipated demand for copper and iron during growth spurt in China)
  • Environmental legislation banning or restricting the use of materials and chemicals (the European Union REACH and RoHS Directives)

My question is: to what extent should we include issues of this sort in Materials teaching?  They may seem out of place in courses on Materials Science and Engineering, yet anticipating them and planning to cope with them may be an important aspect for our students when they leave.  If you have experience or views on this, please share them on this Forum.

Thanks, Mike


11-Mar-2014 07:36 PM

Arlindo Silva

Posts: 1

Very interesting topic, but one I would not expect to see in a "traditional" materials course. I have drawn the students' attention to this in a engineering systems course for PhD students, and find that they understand its importance and can really relate to the topic - some of them have work experience and were faced with this in the past.

Having said that, I think that this topic could potentially be tackled in a "traditional" materials course in the same way that we now introduce enviromental impact - even concurrently - in what used to be "traditional" materials courses. However I see another risk: trying to put too much in a course can overwhelm students, and ultimately you need to take something out. The question than becomes "what to take out, to make room for materials risk?