Change is the order of the day. However, this state of flux is not confined to materials scientists. Organisations such as the UK Centre for Materials Education (UKCME), charged with a remit to enhance student learning, are also in the business of change. Educational change is not an easy business. There is often abundant goodwill and resources to match. Yet, it remains clear that most investment in educational change fails to deliver the desired outcomes.

The problem stems primarily from a lack of insider knowledge of the context in which change is to happen; a failure to understand the defining features and barriers to change; a lack of appreciation of the restrictions and limitations, and of what is feasible.

Time after time, developers fall back on the same strategies. Conferences and workshops are offered. ‘Change champions’ are appointed. Small grants are made available to lone enthusiasts. While such strategies have merit, they impact only on the few. In isolation, they prove woefully inadequate if real and large-scale change is to be achieved.

UKCME, through experience, has learned that what is needed is a deep understanding of the context in which the change is to take place, and an active and sustained commitment to making change happen. The result is the Supported Change Programme, which has been implemented successfully in five UK HE Departments.

The social world, shaped and inhabited by human beings, is much more complex and unpredictable that that which confronts materials scientists, as they engage in their research. Nevertheless, parallels can be drawn between the way educational developers have chosen to operate and the approaches adopted by those engaged in scientific exploration. Like materials scientists, UKCME begins in each Department with a process of macro-assessment; visits which involve a critical scrutiny to develop an understanding of what is possible, and an appreciation of the capacity of the department to deliver.

Materials scientists carry with them a wealth of knowledge, based on research experience. As a result, they already appreciate the properties and characteristics of materials. This tells experimenters what can and cannot be done. Because of their lack of such a priori knowledge, UKCME developers must spend time in the department undertaking in-depth interviews with colleagues. This ensures that all become involved in the process, and that diverse opinions and views are represented. Crucially, the interviews establish a way forward. This is clearly illustrated in the comment below from a head of department in an institution participating in the Supported Change Programme:

“… what came out of the interviews was tremendous amounts of detailed information regarding good practice already happening here, along with everyone's perception of what the [educational development] should really contain… We were able to formulate a process that was quick and well documented, based on things that were already happening. It got everybody together. It got best practice together, and it got everybody's perceptions on the table.”

As with scientific investigation, the educational change must now enter an experimental phase. As development proceeds, progress is critically appraised, with findings reported back and shared with colleagues in the department.

In light of this, judgements can now be made as to how well the change is proceeding, what it is achieving, and how if necessary modifications can be made.

None of this will be achieved without an ongoing commitment from UKCME developers, who must be able to respond to the unpredictable, and provide for their colleagues support and resources, as required.

A key element of the work of the materials scientist involves contributing actively to the wider knowledge of their community by communicating outcomes of their work, in a variety of ways. A parallel to this can be found in the Supported Change Programme, where the achievements through educational development in each Department are celebrated by publicising case-studies.

While the high level of commitment and structured approach associated with the Supported Change Programme may seem excessive, such an investment may be necessary, if real change is to take place. This message is not lost on the colleague below:

“This approach was relatively time-consuming. The resource implications… should not be underestimated; but it must be appreciated that the development that resulted far outweighed the effort expended. It could also be argued that such an approach, based on supportive yet critical appraisal is necessary, if sustainable curriculum development is to be achieved”.

Certainly, it is naïve to draw strict comparisons between the work of materials scientists and that of educational change agents, but our experience is that much can be learned from the former. Materials science provides its community with a structured framework in which active and creative exploration can take place. The messages are clear. Painstaking effort and commitment, ongoing experimentation and critical appraisal of evidence are all needed, if genuine change is to be achieved.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(08)70241-4