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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 A-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.


This course provides an introduction to Materials Science, focussing on the ways in which processing determines the structure of materials and how this structure, over various length scales, determines material properties. The course is grounded in fundamental physical science concepts, allied to Physics and Chemistry but also has a strongly applied focus with industrial relevance. It allows students to broaden their scientific horizons beyond the disciplines they have studied at school and particularly appeals to students whose interests are in applied experimental science. It is primarily aimed at those studying other physical science subjects in Part IA of the Tripos and provides a good grounding in solid state science for those who will go on to specialise in Physics, Chemistry or Earth Sciences, or as the basis for the further study of Materials Science.

Learning outcomes

At the end of the Part IA Materials Science course, students will be expected to have:

  1. acquired an understanding of the main principles related to the processing, structure and properties of materials and the experimental approaches used to reveal these concepts;
  2. developed an understanding of the structures of materials on various length scales;
  3. acquired the ability to carry out basic calculations related to the structure, physical properties and chemical stability of materials;
  4. learned good experimental practice and be confident in a range of simple laboratory techniques;
  5. carried out project work in small groups and written an individual report detailing that work.

Teaching and Learning methods

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


Assessment for this course is through

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

  • completion of online worksheets related to each practical class, and submission of short lab notes;

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

Courses of Preparation

Essential: A Level (pr equivalent) Physics or Chemistry and Mathematics. No previous subject knowledge is necessary.

Additional Information

Further information is available on the Course Websites pages.