Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Materials Science and Engineering or Nothing Else

In 2008, while on a sabbatical leave at the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Ghana, I was assigned to teach the course "Materials and the Future." One assignment I gave the students was to write a newspaper article on any aspect of materials science and engineering that interested them.

Here is the contribution from Kwadwo Konadu Ansah-Antwi, the pioneer student of the new Department of Materials Science and Engineering. I thank Kwadwo for permitting me to share this and hope it will inspire others to explore this field so vital to African development. I have been in contact with The Daily Graphic since September 2008, but I have found that it is completely nontrivial to get feedback from Ghana's leading newspaper as to if and when they plan to publish it.

Materials Science and Engineering or Nothing Else
Kwadwo Konadu Ansah-Antwi
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Faculty of Engineering Sciences
University of Ghana

When asked the question, “What would you like to be in the future?” the words that always sprang from my lips were “an electrical engineer.” When I completed junior high school I was admitted into Mfantsipim School to read general science. My elective subjects were mathematics, physics, chemistry and technical drawing. Well, it was not a smooth ride through senior high school, but I can still remember my euphoria on the day I turned in my final SSSCE paper.

When it came to choose my course of study at university I did not have to think twice. Electrical engineering was my first choice on the form addressed to the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). Because there are only a few universities and polytechnics to absorb all the thousands of students that qualify for admissions, it is a wise decision to buy more than one university’s admission form. Still, I actually had never thought that I would ever have my university education at the University of Ghana. It was well known among many people that the University of Ghana is to humanities as KNUST is to science and technology.

I was pressed between the courses to choose on the University of Ghana forms since electrical engineering was not part of the engineering courses offered there. Computer, biomedical, food processing, agricultural, and materials science and engineering (ceramic option) were the programs listed at the engineering column. I finally settled for computer engineering as my first choice since I thought it was the most prestigious among the list. Little did I know that I would be admitted into University of Ghana to offer a programme of which I had no prior knowledge. The end of the first part of my story is that I was not admitted to study electrical engineering at KNUST and neither did I gain admission to study computer engineering there. I was offered a chance to study “materials science and engineering” at the University of Ghana.

On August 3, 2005 I reported for registration at the University of Ghana. By this time I had developed so much enthusiasm for materials science and engineering that I could not wait for the freshmen/women orientation to end so lectures could begin. My interest in materials science and engineering developed as a result of the persistent research I carried out on the job prospects and essentially what the programme entailed at the undergraduate level. As a child I had always dreamed of working with NASA. In one of my research sessions on the Internet I came across an advertisement from a materials science and engineering professor. In the ad the professor was in search of graduate students to conduct research designing highly thermal resistant ceramic tiles for the space shuttle being used by NASA. Immediately I knew I had found another door through which I could potentially join the NASA staff even though the electrical engineering window had been closed to me.

All the students that had been admitted into the various engineering programmes were to take common courses for two years. I made some good friends among my course mates. I was on the lookout for students who had been admitted for materials science and engineering but I couldn’t find any at that moment. However, as the semester progressed I got to know that there were about six other students who were in my department.

In the blink of an eye the first semester had ended. I was posted to GRATIS foundation as an intern together with seven other students from all the various engineering departments. GRATIS is an acronym for Ghana Regional Appropriate Technology Industrial Services. It is a collaborative initiative of the Government of Ghana, the European Union (EU) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Gratis Ghana Foundation exists to promote industrialization by developing and disseminating technology to industry, particularly small and medium-scale enterprises.

For every step I took in GRATIS my quest was to identify the relevance of materials science and engineering with the operations of the company. As an intern I was trained on how to use AUTOCAD software to design. I was also involved in a team that fabricated a groundnut dehusking machine.

The second semester of level 100 began and by now I was acclimatized to the rigorous university work. By this time almost all the other departments except materials science and engineering had at least two lecturers. The Dean of the faculty decided to give students the choice of switching from other departments into the computer engineering department since it seemed to be the department with the greatest number of lecturers. To my surprise, all the other students in my department left for other departments; I became the only student left. The engineering school in the University of Ghana is very new. The first group of graduates finished in June 2008. I am among the second batch of admitted students into the Faculty of Engineering Sciences.

You may ask how I survived as the only student. I admit that I first had to understand the programme by way of its job and future prospects and a little about the necessary prerequisite courses. Basically the job opportunities were enormous and the requisite courses were chemistry, physics and mathematics, while biology students would be advantaged slightly when it comes to biomaterials.

You may also wonder why I am talking about my experience in the university. It opened my eyes to a reality of which I was previously unaware. Many people, including academicians and professionals of other engineering disciplines, are completely oblivious to the field of materials science and engineering. The number of materials industries in Ghana as of now is relatively small. Historically, civilizations have been closely tied to the types of materials they have used. Our land is blessed with all that we need to develop a vibrant materials industry.

There can only be significant change when people are equipped with the knowledge and capacity to process new materials. How can this become a reality when people are shying away from the profession, for reasons best known only to them? “Ghana has a problem and it is a materials problem” are the words of Mr. Lucas Damoah, a member of the Faculty of Engineering Sciences.
Materials science or nothing else” were the words I spoke to my Dean when he asked if I wished to switch to computer engineering.

I write this piece to sound a clarion call to all and sundry to consider personal, active participation in developing the materials-based industries in our country. After all, the mineral companies that are generating millions of cedis for the country are metallurgical industries.

Think of the numerous problems that bedevil our nation, such as plastic waste, energy insufficiency, and lack of industries. All these result from a lack of the basic starting materials needed for production. The earlier we give attention to the education of materials science and engineering professionals, the better it would for the nation’s development.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Materials Society of Nigeria

When the surprise invitation to present at the November 2008 meeting of NIMACON, the Nigerian Materials Congress (a meeting of the Nigerian Materials Research Society) arrived, I already had plans to visit the African University of Science and Technology (AUST) in Abuja, Nigeria. It was therefore a fortunate coincidence and I happily incorporated NIMACON into my travel plans.

This was the 7th annual conference. I had not realized Nigeria's MRS had been in existence for 7 years: the founding of this professional society therefore preceded that of MRS-Africa by a couple of years.

The theme of the 2008 meeting was "Materials Development and the Vision 2020." However it was energized by another event: I arrived in Nigeria on Tuesday, November 4, the day of the U.S. presidential election. By November 5 the news of Obama's historic victory had spread around the world. That morning when I arrived at the Engineering Materials Development Institute where the meeting was held, it was clear that the optimism from Obama's successful campaign had permeated the place. It was as if the delegates' mood shifted Obama's campaign slogan "yes we can!" to replace the original theme. Repeatedly during the presentations a speaker might encounter a challenge (e.g., an uncooperative computer projector), and the audience would encourage him/her with a cheerful "yes, we can." Or, a speaker would point to the challenges confronting researchers, due to the lack of research infrastructure. . ."Yes we can!"

The 4 technical sessions at the 2008 congress included:

Developments in Modeling and Simulation
Developments in Nanomaterials, Biomaterials, Electronic Materials and Energy
Developments in Fibers, Textiles, Ceramics and Composite Materials
Developments in Minerals and Materials Processing

NIMACON 2008 was a collaborative effort with sponsorship from the following groups:

National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI), Abuja

Engineering Materials Development Institute (EMDI), Akure

Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC), Abuja

Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHESTCO), Abuja

National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Abuja

Nigerian Building and Road Research Institute (NBRRI), Abuja

The next AFRICA-MRS meeting will be held in Abuja later this year (2009). Start making plans now to attend!

Friday, April 3, 2009

African proverbs--teaching and learning materials science and engineering

In September 2008 I posted a blog about my experiment using African proverbs to teach students materials science and engineering at the University of Ghana, and in December 2008 I followed that up with a blog sharing similar experiences while teaching at AUST in Abuja, Nigeria. It was a wonderful surprise to learn that the students I taught at AUST in November 2008 are still reflecting on the assignment I gave them.

Here is a recent contribution shared by Clement Domefafa Atiso:

The following two proverbs are from the Volta Region of Ghana (in West Africa) and are shown in Ewe, followed by their literal English translation and an attempt to relate them to the science of materials.

“Heti be mekaye o, gake ne na ne dzo de dzi la, aba gbo wa koe ayie”
Straw says that he does not care, but if he finds himself in trouble, he goes to mat for help.

Relevance to materials science and engineering: A mat is a carpet-like material obtained by weaving straws together. When spread on the floor it is used for sleeping or sitting. It is also used outside for activities requiring people to sit on the ground. To understand how materials function we must first know how they behave at their microscopic level. For instance, the human body is made of several organs but the basic building blocks are cells. An accurate and down-to-core understanding of how cells function and interact with each other will help to predict an organ’s behavior at the macroscopic level. In other words, macroscopic properties are often the manifestation of microscopic properties, thus both are inseparable. So is straw to mat, since mat is stronger, but it is made of many straws woven together.

“Nuyi atso vo na etsoa la, le ye to fe adome."
“What will circumcise the horse is found within itself" (or, The horse has within itself what it needs to become a circumsized animal).

Relevance to materials science and engineering: this proverb basically means that solutions to problems are frequently found within the problems themselves. A typical example is found in fracture mechanics. Fracture mechanics is a branch of materials science and engineering involving the study of how materials break. If we have a thorough idea about how materials fracture, we can design them to minimize their failure rates. Airplanes were formerly designed with rectangular windows, but right angles in shapes constitute high areas of stress concentration which easily initiate cracks leading to fractures. That is why planes' windows are now designed as ovals: rounded corners have less stress on them than square ones. Most materials science and engineering problems have their solutions embedded in themselves. Materials scientists and engineers need only to learn how to uncover and utilize them.

Thanks to Mr. Atiso (Fafa) for keeping this conversation going. Does anyone else have anything to add?
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