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Materials Science

Subject Summary: Part IA Materials Science

This course covers a modern, fast-growing and interdisciplinary area with very flexible boundaries. Great diversity arises in materials because they comprise atomic and molecular structures organised in complex patterns over many different length scales. The resulting intricate microstructures produce striking physical properties, leading to electrical, optical and mechanical behaviour of both scientific and technological importance. 

This course explores the fascinating science of structure-property relationships through an integrated system of lectures and practicals that are supplemented by web-based learning. You will engage in a wide range of hands-on activities, including nanoscale characterisation and fuel-cell construction. In addition, you will learn, for example, how liquid-crystal displays work, how biomaterials inspire materials design, and why aeroplanes do not fall apart. The course forms an important part of physical sciences teaching at Cambridge, and contains invaluable background knowledge to underpin in subsequent years, the study of Materials Science or other physical sciences such as Physics, Chemistry and Earth Sciences. European vacation-placement schemes are available for those wishing to continue into IB. 

The lectures are supplemented by weekly practical sessions. These practicals are closely related to the lectures and are expressly designed to help develop and clarify concepts introduced during the lectures. These form an essential part of the course and are an effective means of consolidating understanding. Each practical is described in a Practical Booklet, and a brief on-line assessed worksheet is completed ahead of the practical class. 

The A2-level (or equivalent) background of those taking the course normally includes Mathematics and either Chemistry or Physics. Materials Science in Part IA fits together well with any of the other Natural Science options.

Programme Specification: Part IA Materials Science

This course is taught by the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy.


  1. to introduce the basic concepts concerning the materials in the world about us and to explain the structure and properties of crystalline and non-crystalline materials, the symmetry and defects of crystal structures, their chemical stability, physical properties, mechanical properties and changes in structure;
  2. to explain the experimental approaches and technologies which have led to our understanding of materials' structure and properties;
  3. to provide practical classes which are designed to help develop and clarify concepts introduced in lectures and to allow students to experience the experimental methods which have led to our understanding of materials;
  4. to provide sufficient background material to enable students to continue with more specialised courses in Part IB, such as Materials Science and other physical science subjects.

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course the students should

  1. have acquired an understanding of the main concepts related to the structure and properties of materials and the experimental approaches used to reveal these concepts;
  2. be able to understand the three-dimensional nature of crystalline and non-crystalline materials and to calculate values relevant to their structure, physical properties and chemical stability;
  3. have mastered good experimental practice and be confidant in laboratory techniques;

Teaching and learning methods

These include lectures, practicals and demonstrations, supervisions and extensive use of dedicated software packages.


Assessment for this course is through

  • completion of on-line worksheets related to each practical class;

  • a mini-project report on the deconstruction of an item, and characterisation of its components;

  • one unseen written examination based on material given in lectures and practicals throughout the year.

Courses of Preparation

Highly Desirable: A Level Physics or Chemistry and Mathematics. No previous subject knowledge is necessary.

Additional Information

Further information is available on the Course Websites pages.