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We report on findings of a project to identify specific student difficulties in a university-level introductory materials science course for engineers. This is the first part of a larger project to design and assess evidence-based curricular materials for this course. Through interviews, testing, and classroom observation of over 1000 students, we examined in detail student understanding of basic topics in materials science including topics such as atomic structure, mechanical properties, defects, diffusion, phase diagrams, failure, and the processing of metals. We identified four general areas in which students have difficulties: Student confusion of similar concepts, student difficulties with reasoning about concepts with more than one variable, student use of inappropriate models or analogies, and student difficulties with common graphs and diagrams used in materials science. We provide a number of specific examples of each category, focusing on the materials science of metals. While these student difficulties are interesting in their own right, a careful examination of these difficulties can also provide useful information for the design of instructional materials.