“This is a partnership. It’s not a pure lecture-approach. It’s real – your problems, your projects; faculty research problems, faculty projects. You will work on focused projects with an emphasis on student-needs and regional industry needs.”
So says Ken Kearns, assistant professor of chemistry, of SVSU’s new Master of Science, energy and materials (MEM). Kearns, with experience and research in amorphous materials and polymers and with an added interest in advising, is one of several faculty members excited about teaching classes in this new advanced degree designed for recent graduates or professionals with B.S. degrees in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemistry or physics. The MEM is a 30 credit hour program that provides a holistic approach to the advanced study and application of alternative energy and materials through course work and capstone projects.
According to Kearns, one of the strengths of the program is its regional concentration. “We are in a unique position geographically. We have the world’s second largest chemical company in our backyard. Historically, Dow Chemical was a commodities company, but now that is changing and there is more of a materials focus. Additionally, Dow Corning has been a leader in silicon chemistry for a long time and they are really pushing their solar energy capabilities now. Our students need to be ready to effectively participate in these new and growing markets; they can have opportunities right here in our region.”
Kearns appreciates that the value of graduate study, regardless of the program, is grounded in learning how to do research and how to think critically. “It’s not about learning to do one particular thing. It’s all about understanding the thought process: how do you take a complicated problem, tear it apart and figure it out.” Add to this a curriculum developed with this region in mind (and with input from regional industry), and you have an opportunity for future-focused professionals to be prepared for opportunities in alternative energy, energy storage industries and advanced materials.
The passion for teaching Kearns has is due in great part to his own undergraduate studies at SVSU. His mentors are all still involved with the College and gave him a real sense of the value of involving students in research, emphasizing the importance of critical thinking and really engaging students in the learning process. Of teaching, Kearns suggests it is “more fun that I thought it would be and at the same time, much more difficult.” The fun, he says, is interacting with students, “pushing them and making them think critically.”
The capstone sequence offers a real world, field work project that synthesized the technical and business skills developed throughout the program. Kearns looks forward to working with students on their capstone projects. “A lot of what I am interested in focuses on molecular interfaces as well as nanoscale confinement of materials. Molecules are more mobile at a free surface. We can take advantage of this to prepare exceptionally stable materials, which are relevant for low energy lighting applications, that would have taken 1000 years to prepare with previous methods. Another project looks to study what happens when we put molecules into small, nanometer-sized spaces. As you might expect, they behave differently and this can have implications for certain types of solar cells.” As for advising students, Kearns says “working with the students will be most of the fun. We’ll work closely together on these projects and as they become more familiar with the science, they’ll begin to take ownership of the project. It takes a lot of really hard work for everyone involved, but it is remarkably rewarding.”