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Dr Caroline Baillie is the Dupont Canada Chair of Engineering Education Research and Development at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Between May 2000 and 2003 Caroline was Senior Lecturer in Engineering and the Deputy Director of the UK Centre for Materials Education (UKCME) based in Liverpool - part of the national HEFCE funded Learning and Teaching Support Network. During her first lectureship in materials within the Dept. of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, University of Sydney (1992-1996), she had the opportunity of taking a Masters in Higher Education, which helped to fuel her developing interest in student learning.

Caroline also directed a large consortium FDTL programme to study the 'tutorial' system within materials subject areas. She has over 100 publications in materials science and education and is the author of four books on teaching and learning.

In popular culture, she is best known as the host of Building the Impossible, a four part documentary commissioned by the BBC in which a team of experts undertook the challenge of building historical inventions to their original specification to see if they really worked.


What specific degree(s) did you study?

Bachelors in Materials Technology at the University of Surrey.

What did you study at A level?

Physics, Maths, Chemistry.

How did you first become interested and why did you choose to study Materials Science?

I was generally interested in why the world was the way it was – always inquisitive about why, why, why. Jerry Towner from the University of Surrey came to my school and asked me ‘why don’t you fall through the floor when you walk across it?’ He was of course discussing the title of the fabulous book ‘ the New Science of Strong Materials by JE Gordon (subtitled’ Why don’t you fall through the floor’). I didn’t know how to answer him and that intrigued me. I read the book and was fascinated. I decided at that time to become a forensic scientist (which I didn’t end up doing) so that I could always question everything as a career option.

What did you like about studying Materials Science?

The first time I really loved it was during my year abroad (sandwich course) in Paris and Luxembourg when I could do some actual research – real discovery. I had discovered during the first two years of my degree that instead of me being able to really think about how the world was and could be – I had to sit there listening to a lot of men telling me how the world was. I really wanted to learn how to discover and how to think. I didn’t want to be told facts. I found that very boring and in retrospect I understand why.

What types of general skill did your Materials Science degree help you to develop?

Thinking in an interdisciplinary way is critical to being a materials scientist. We are at the intersection of many ways of thinking and doing and can apply our thinking to many subjects. This, by the way is why I think that it is sad when we don’t fully exploit the potential Materials Science has for linking into everybody’s interests. Because of the juxtaposition of ideas needed in Materials Science the connection to creative thinking is therefore very strong – coming up with innovative solutions for ill-defined problems.

How has your degree helped you in your employment? What was your first job after graduation?

My degree has helped me in a very traditional academic sense as I am a University Professor. However, it has also helped me in many other ways. I started out after graduation for a brief spell in public relations. I resigned from this job when I was asked to promote asbestos to support the legal claims of Turner and Newall who were being accused of previously covering up information about asbestos as a carcinogen. It was an important moment for me. I decided to go back to University and do further materials research but on my terms. Not just discovery for the sake of discovery or for career advancement or progression, or to make money, but to develop systems and structures to help people in the world. I have since found incredible ways of using the knowledge I gained to work with socially marginalised populations.

If you were taking your degree again, would you do anything differently?

I would ask my professors to focus on things of interest to me – not just beams without context or fast cars without connection to anything meaningful to me. I would want to learn not only what but why. I would also hope to have the opportunity to learn about the social, economic and political contexts that my work would serve, or ways to help transform these structures.

What advice can you give to new Materials Science students?

Ask questions. Be sure that you are on a quest to know who you are and what you want to do. Don’t assume that you should do this or that because others have done it. Be yourself. Discover who you are and how you can learn to become more fully who you wish to be in life.

Would you recommend a degree in Materials Science to students who do not plan to become Scientists and if so why?

I would recommend Materials Science for anyone who wants to think creatively about the world – but I reiterate that the profs have got to allow this kind of thinking for a student to develop.

What were you like as a student?

Very idealistic. Strong. Independent. Interested in social issues, equity and saving the world. Not so different from now, really.

What is your best memory of your time in University?

Doing theatre, plotting to save the world, imagining the future.

Who and/or what were some of the influences on you when you were at school/ university?

Some very special friends and relatives who took the time to share with me their thoughts on life, the Universe and everything - Stephen Cox who invited me to think holistically for the first time, Cathy who dreamed and debated with me, Cynthia who asked me why I didn’t try to focus my scientific work on what I believed in..

What advice would you give to someone embarking on a career in Materials Science?

Think about which University to go to – ask the profs what they believe in and why they think what they teach is important. Follow your dreams.

What answers would you like Science to provide in the next 10 years?

Contribute to the messy real world interdisciplinary problems such as; How we can reduce poverty, decrease the gap between the rich and the poor, reduce human impact on the environment... Science cannot work in a vacuum – cannot provide answers alone. We need to work together with people from other disciplines and work out some of the really difficult problems. And we have to make sure what our motives are.

What is your recollection of your first involvement in science?

Materials of course: Mud in the garden, water, making bridges with sand at the beach.

What do you consider to be the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th century?

Not commenting on its impact only on its inventiveness I would say the Internet and communications technologies more generally. However If I were to include the social and environmental impact I would have more difficulty deciding. That’s why I think we need to be more creative and spend more time on problems that may not necessarily create profit for us in the long term but will reduce human suffering.

Was there anything about studying Materials Science that you did not expect?

That years after my degree I would be able to use the knowledge and skills I had gained to help very poor groups make a little more money for themselves.