At the heart of materials science is an understanding of the microstructure of solids. “Microstructure” is used broadly in reference to solids viewed at the subatomic (electronic) and atomic levels, and the nature of the defects at these levels. The microstructures of solids at various levels, especially the defects, profoundly influence the mechanical, electronic, chemical, and biological properties of solids. The phenomenological and mechanistic relationships between the microstructure and the macroscopic properties of solids are, in essence, what the materials science is all about. This is best represented by the “materials science triangle”: synthesis-microstructure-properties. 

Materials engineering, on the other hand, is concerned with the design, fabrication, and testing of engineering materials. Such materials must fulfill simultaneously the dimensional properties, quality control, and economic requirements. Several manufacturing steps may be involved: (1) primary fabrication, such as solidification or vapor deposition of homogeneous or composite materials; (2) secondary fabrication, including shaping and microstructural control by operations such as mechanical working, machining, sintering, joining and heat treatment and (3) testing, which measures the degree of reliability of a processed part, destructively or non-destructively. 

Because the science of materials branches into other fields of study, the department offers joint fields of study in collaboration with other departments. A degree specializing in electronic materials is offered which provides a broad-based background in materials science, with the opportunity to specialize in semiconducting materials used in electronic and optoelectronic devices. The program incorporates several courses in electrical engineering in addition to those in the materials science curriculum. 

A joint major field, chemistry/materials science, is offered to students enrolled in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry (College of Letters and Science). Several courses in the undergraduate curriculum also play an important role in the manufacturing engineering program. 

The graduate program allows for specialization in one of the following fields: ceramics and ceramic processing, electronic and optical materials, and structural materials.