Posted on February 05, 2021
We chat to Prof Roelf Mostert, Head of UP’s Department of Materials Science and Metallurgical Engineering, which recently topped the ranks in the country for its metallurgical engineering degree programme.
Tukkievaria spoke to Prof Roelf Mostert about how his department achieved top ranking for the second consecutive year and what sets the department apart from others in the country.
Tukkievaria (TV): How do you feel about your department being ranked the best of its kind in SA by the Minerals Education Trust Fund (METF) for the second consecutive year?
RM: I am obviously delighted by this ranking result. Each year the METF goes through a rigorous process to collect data on all of the six participating national metallurgical programmes and concludes the process with a presentation and interview with the full metallurgical sub-committee being present. To be awarded the number one spot for the second year in a row is indeed a great honour.
TV: How would you explain what materials science and metallurgical engineering entail to those who may not be acquainted with these disciplines?
RM: Materials and metals form the basic building blocks of the modern built environment. These materials are created in processes that start at the level of mineral ores, of which South Africa and our region has an abundant supply. Effectively producing materials and metals, as well as components with cutting-edge properties and performance, especially in the context of the fourth industrial revolution and sustainability imperatives, is what this field entails. It is a challenging, topical, and very interesting field of study and endeavour.
TV: What sets your department apart from similar departments in some of the country’s other tertiary education institutions?
RM: Our department has a long and proud history of more than 60 years, and we have developed engineers that are well acquainted with all five of the existing metallurgical sub-disciplines. When the department was formed, it was one of the first in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology, and it is still a leader in its field today. We maintain very close relationships with industrial partners in all of the metallurgical fields, conducting applied research and design even at an undergraduate level. This ensures that our students leave university as well-rounded, experienced individuals to take up their role as leaders in society.
TV: Going into 2020, what were some of the goals that you set for the department that you felt would help it consolidate its ranking; and which of those goals did your department achieve?
RM: During the preceding years, the department embarked on a project to adapt the undergraduate curriculum to the ever-changing requirements facing our graduates. The new curriculum would be implemented in 2020 and this would require the development of new academic material and overcoming a number of challenges regarding transitory measures. Another major goal was to promote the field of materials science and metallurgical engineering, and what it entails in the context of the fourth industrial revolution, to learners at school level. Achieving both these goals in the context of the national state of lockdown proved to be very challenging, but it is satisfying looking back at our achievements in 2020 and realising that we have achieved success in both of these goals.
TV: Over the years, your department has made significant strides in advancing the University’s transformation agenda. What was the demographic profile, in terms of race and gender, of the students who were registered in your department last year?
RM: In the recent decade, we have made inroads in attracting students of all ethnic groups and genders. At the start of the decade, 69% of our undergraduate students were black, and this figure had gradually increased to 86.4% in 2020. The percentage of students in our undergraduate student complement who were women was 52.3% in 2020. Our department’s demographics therefore reflect the national demographics well.
TV: Many of last year’s cohort of matriculants are unsure about what to study. If they feel they have an affinity for engineering, would you recommend materials science and metallurgical engineering to them, and why?
RM: I would definitely recommend materials science and metallurgical engineering. Today’s school leaver is typically looking for a career that is exciting, flexible, rewarding and important, both from a national and international perspective. Their career choice must also remain relevant in future, in the context of the emergence of artificial intelligence and the fourth industrial revolution. Materials science and metallurgical engineering offers exactly that type of career, due to the central role that materials and metals play in all sectors of industry and the economy.
TV: Do material and metallurgical engineers play a role in furthering the sustainable development agenda (the Sustainable Development Goals and the goals in SA’s National Development Plan) in any way? If they do, how would you say they do this?
RM: All 17 SDGs depend, to a certain extent, on the availability and optimal use of specific materials and metals and the products formed from them. Goals such as those related to energy, water, industry/infrastructure/innovation and climate change have clear links to the associated materials and metallic components required for their realisation. Even goals such as the one related to Healthy Lives, depend on innovation as far as materials are concerned. In 2019, the first middle ear implant using 3-D printing technology was performed by UP academics, a breakthrough that was dependent on materials science and engineering.
As far as our National Development Plan is concerned, many of the goals – such as that of developing a vibrant economy with good employment possibilities, creating a sound economic infrastructure with good environmental sustainability and resilience, as well as others – need the active participation of South African materials and metallurgical engineers to develop and optimise the process and products required to drive these initiatives.
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