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Sharing the Story of Critical Materials


It’s no surprise that the Colorado School of Mines would be tagged as the partner to coordinate the Critical Materials Institute’s education activities.  Mines is internationally known for its expertise in resource exploration, extraction, production and utilization, all key focus areas of the CMI, as well as its strong research and education programs.

“At Mines, we really understand the supply-chain, fundamental science and process engineering  involved in going from extraction of ore containing critical minerals to preparing them as specialized feedstock materials for applications in advanced technologies,” says Nigel Middleton, senior vice president for Strategic Enterprises at the Colorado School of Mines.  “So it’s only natural for us to be a leading player in the focus of the CMI and its agenda in education, training and outreach.”

Although efforts are in the formative stages, plans for the CMI’s education programs and outreach will target three key audiences: students and researchers active within the CMI community, a broader community of scientists outside the CMI, and the public.  The industry audience includes “those who are already working in the supply chain.”  For example, these people might be the target of three- to four-day education courses on topics such as rare-earth materials recycling, processing or upstream discovery as well as economics and evaluation.

The broader community outside the CMI includes students and researchers at government, industrial and academic institutions, including community colleges.  
“This is where we spread our wings a bit further,” says Barry Martin, who is the director of the Special Programs and Continuing Education (SPACE) office at Mines.  Martin says CMI may offer internships for post doctoral researchers, exchange programs where students would work with faculty at other institutions, or distance education courses. 

One such course is the Chemical and Physical Metallurgy of Rare Earths (MSE 457/557X) which is already being offered by CMI partner, Iowa State University.

Nigel Middleton
Barry Martin

Taught by Vitalij Pecharsky, Ames Lab senior metallurgist and ISU Distinguished Professor in materials science and engineering, the course, which began last year as both an on-campus student course and as a distance education course for researchers and industry representatives around the country, has moved from “experimental” status to being offered every other year beginning in 2014.

  “Feedback on the course has been good,” says Pecharsky.

Pecharsky teaching the rare-earth course

Martin says CMI will also focus on educating the public on critical materials issues, mostly because of the political dynamics of the criticality of rare-earth materials in this country.  So the CMI might propose a lecture series on rare earths, focusing on “elevating the important role critical materials play in our quality of life.

“Mines might even build upon its already-existing and popular Energy Minerals Field Institute and begin offering people opportunities to come to Colorado and participate in field site visits,” he says, adding he could also see working more closely with local governments to identify manufacturing opportunities and, thereby, build a “larger footprint for businesses.”  

And looking down the road, Martin says a longer term education vehicle may be STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) efforts for the K-12 community.  For example, CMI partners may contribute to curriculum development for teachers and students, or they may develop summer camps and materials’ bowls, which would test high school students’ knowledge in chemistry and metallurgy.

“Through our efforts, we hope to tie everything together and show how research turns into action,” says Martin. “It’s a great opportunity to tell the story of science.”