Module Descriptions

Module Description Learning Objectives
Understanding the Material World This module introduces the structure of the course, the basic properties of materials, and the dynamic relationship between materials and society (Materials shape society, but society shapes how we perceive and use materials).
  • understand the course materials and objectives
  • consider why materials matter to society
  • identify the physical and social properties of matter
  • describe the properties of an easily accessible object
  • personalize a preliminary Materials Impact Paradigm for use throughout the course
 Clay: The Entanglement of Earth in the Age of Clay This module focuses on the most primal material—earth itself (in the form of clay)—as used in the deep past and contrasts it with materials very much of the present and future: rare earth elements. As different as they may seem, they are similar not only as “earthy materials” but in terms of how humans have become inexorably dependent on them, even as these things are dependent on humans.
  • identify the properties of clay
  • identify the properties of rare earth materials
  • discover the uses and applications of clay both historically and in modern times
  • examine the many relationships between humans and materials
  • recognize the existence of critical materials.
Ceramics: Firing Clay and Flaking Stone The manipulation of glass-like rocks and ceramics represent humans’ earliest materials innovations. This module examines the process and social impacts of shaping rock and clay, and uses these lessons to explore the possibilities for manipulating tomorrow’s functional ceramics. The creation of new processing approaches allows us to take advantage of different properties of a material, giving us insights into how we might rethink traditional approaches to dealing with materials corrosion.
  • identify the properties of ceramics
  • describe the work of materials processing
  • discover the uses and applications of ceramics both historically and in modern times
  • examine how the physical processing of a material involves social acts
  • discover the hidden costs of increasing materials manufacturing.
Concrete: Engineering Society through Social Spaces First developed by the Romans millennia ago, to create unprecedented monumental public spaces and artificial ports—moldable, pourable, waterproof, durable and quick-setting—concrete is the most common building material in use today. This module explores the ancient Roman use of concrete and uses lessons learned to suggest how we can use new smart building materials in purposeful ways to address social needs. The use of a material for a particular application is shaped by what a culture needs and values; recognizing these influences is vital to using new materials in ways that combat materials degradation.
  • identify the properties of concrete
  • identify examples of smart building materials
  • discover the uses and applications of concrete both historically and in modern times
  • examine how cultural values shape the use of materials in a society
  • discover the sustainability concerns with concrete as a building material
Copper and Bronze: The Far-Reaching Consequences of Metallurgy The discovery of the metals and the invention of metallurgy was both a technical and a social revolution. This module examines the economic and social dimensions of smelting and casting copper in the Bronze Age, and uses these lessons to predict the intensive sourcing and production needs of new photovoltaics. Understanding the relationships of trade, social class, and expertise is crucial to creating enduring materials for tomorrow’s world.
  • identify the properties of copper and its alloys
  • identify the properties of photovoltaics
  • discover the uses and applications of copper both historically and in modern times
  • examine the relationship of trade routes to materials innovation
  • discover the importance of codifying expertise in materials engineering
Gold and Silver: Precious Metals and Coinage Humans give value to materials in many different socially-informed ways. This module examines the creation of currency systems based on gold and silver, and uses these lessons to explore how we perceive the use of gold nanoparticles in medicine today. Finding new uses for non-corrosive materials may depend upon the value that we give to them in other circumstances.
  • identify the properties of gold and silver
  • identify why precious metals formed the basis of modern currency systems
  • discover the uses and applications of previous metals both historically and in modern times
  • recognize the difference between the intrinsic and extrinsic value of a material
  • sketch how the past uses of a material might affect its use in new applications
Steel: Carnegie and Creative Destruction  The mass industrial manipulation of iron ushered in the modern Industrial Revolution. This module looks at the entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie, the creation of the steel industry, and industrial innovation, and uses lessons learned to predict how the growing use of new magnesium alloys will shape business and industry. The process of innovating with a new material on a mass market level has winners and losers; understanding how making new materials may require re-ordering social, political, and economic systems enables us to anticipate important consequences of combating materials degradation with new materials.
  • identify the properties of iron and steel
  • identify the properties of magnesium alloys
  • discover the uses and applications of iron both historically and in modern times
  • examine the role of workers and organized labor in materials manufacturing
  • discover the business economics of materials production
Aluminum: Alcoa and Anti-Trust  Aluminum first emerged as a metal in search of an application. This module examines the growth of the aluminum consumer market, and uses these lessons to anticipate the future of today’s new amorphous metals. When an individual company or small set of companies has a dominant market hold on a new material, governments may step in to encourage competition and innovation. Understanding the business and legal dimensions of materials manufacturing is key to preparing new materials and techniques to address corrosion problems.
  • identify the properties of aluminum
  • identify the properties of amorphous metals
  • discover the uses and applications of aluminum both historically and in modern times
  • examine the history and rationale of anti-trust legislation in the U.S.
  • relate the ways that entrepreneurs and firms locate uses for new materials
Polymers: Fantastic Plastics in Postwar America As an invented class of materials created in a modern laboratory, polymers have very unique properties and also widely debated uses. While some consider polymers to be the ‘material of the future’, others blame plastics for causing major pollution problems. This module looks at the invention and innovative marketing of Poly-T, more commonly known as Tupperware, and gathers lessons learned to inform the creation of more sustainable bio-polymers. Ultimately, social perceptions of a material are powerful determinants of its use, and we must think strategically about how to market new materials to address the needs and values of consumers.
  • identify the properties of polymers
  • identify the properties of biopolymers
  • discover the uses and applications of polymers both historically and in the future
  • examine the way that individual and social perceptions shape the use of a material
  • discover how the properties of a material rely on the interests of their users
Writing Materials: The Politics and Preservation of Knowledge  The ways that we store and distribute information are not neutral, but have social and political implications for the societies in which these materials function. This module examines the wide variety of materials that have been used for information storage, and uses lessons learned to predict the potentials and pitfalls of new magnetic storage materials. The degradation of different materials for information storage can have a profound impact upon democracy in a society, who has access to information, and whose stories are recorded and accessible.
  • identify the properties of different writing materials, including stone, papyrus, parchment, and paper
  • identify the properties of magnetic materials
  • discover the uses and applications of writing materials both historically and in modern times
  • examine the political dimensions of information storage
  • discover how different technologies for information storage shape how we use and access information, as well as how we manipulate new writing materials
 Semiconductors Semiconductors have forever changed human-human and human-material interactions because they are the foundation of the computing revolution and form the basis of increasingly ubiquitous digital devices. This module looks at how our use of semiconductor-based devices impacts individual human relationships, and draws lessons learned for designing needs-based applications for new 2D materials. As semiconducting materials become more invisibly embedded in our everyday lives, and even in our own persons, only intentional design will ensure that they serve us, versus us serving them.
  • identify the properties of semiconductors
  • identify the properties of graphene and 2D materials
  • discover the uses and applications of semiconductors
  • examine how materials mediate human relationships
  • relate the relationship of industrial to information revolutions


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Impact of Materials on Society: Instructor Guide & Supplemental Materials Copyright © by Sophia Acord; Kevin S. Jones; Marsha Bryant; Debra Dauphin-Jones; and Pamela Hupp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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