Industry tours at metal facilities bring course materials to life

Liam Jackson
May 05, 2015

Molten metal sparks shoot across the room, heat radiates from cooling metal beams, the smell of machine oil pervades the air and the pounding sounds of machines echoes off the walls -- it’s not your typical classroom activity, but for 20 materials science and engineering students, experiencing this first-hand gave them a sneak peek into the metals industry and showed them how what they are learning in books and lectures is applied in the real world. The out-of-classroom experience was part of a metals design course, MATSE 497C: Microstructure Design of Structural Materials.

“Our course focuses on how differences at the atomic level of structural metals -- steels, titanium alloys, aluminum alloys and nickel-based super alloys -- impact the mechanical properties of those metals, such as their ductility and strength. Taking students to see how it’s actually done in the real world really enhances their learning,” said Amy Robinson, instructor in materials science and engineering.

Robinson and Allen Kimel, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, led the students through a day-long whirlwind tour of three facilities in southwestern Pennsylvania. Tours included visits to TSI Titanium’s main processing center in Derry, Carpenter’s Latrobe Specialty Metals and Westmoreland Mechanical Testing and Research, both in Latrobe. Over the course of eight hours, students observed the entire process of metal working -- casting, forging, rolling, finishing and testing.

“One of the things we focus on in class is the repeatability of metal-making processes and how to make a high quality product again and again,” said Andreas Boehm, a senior in the class. “On our tours, we saw how companies approach this, and some even cut open ingots to show us the microstructure of their products. It really took our learning a step further.”

Tours of the facilities were led by plant technicians and engineers, including several Penn State alumni -- Ed Sobota, president of TSI Titanium, who graduated with a bachelor’s in metallurgy in 1994, and Brian Ross, a technical manager at Latrobe Specialty Steel Company, who graduated with his bachelor’s in metallurgy in 1995 and a master of business administration in 2001.

During the tours, students were able to ask questions about the details of each operational process.

“It was helpful to talk with engineers about their role and day-to-day responsibilities -- how much time they spend in their office versus in the plant. It’s a little nerve racking to think about, but it gives me a better picture of what my job could be like after graduation,” said Peter Robinson, a senior in the course.

“It was especially interesting to speak with plant managers about the firm’s history and way they approach their business. To have them take us through and show us what they do for their customers in the real world was extremely helpful,” said Boehm.

Experiences like this help the students feel empowered as they prepare for graduation and to enter the workforce.

“I feel like a lot of engineering is about confidence in your knowledge, and sometimes it’s hard to feel confident when you’ve just read something in a book. But when you see someone working with the material itself, it gives you a greater understanding and the confidence to say, ‘This is how you would do this,’ because I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes. For me, this was a valuable experience,” said Boehm.

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Last Updated May 05, 2015