campus map campus directory The University of Utah Home Page
Students    Future Students     Faculty & Staff     Alumni & Visitors

About Continuum Advertising Advisory Committee Archives Contact Us Continuum Home Faculty/Staff Subscribe

related websites

Alumni Association Marketing & Communications University of Utah Home

  Top Tenor


Spotlight - Molding Civilization

Molding Civilization

Professor Dave Richerson inspires students to make a material difference.

By Kelley J. P. Lindberg

Thirty thousand years ago, give or take a hunting season or two, a human being played with a handful of clay, molded it into a shape, and dropped it into a fire. Deep in the coals, it hardened nearly to the consistency of stone. That must have been a surprise.

That piece of primitive ceramic was the first material that human beings learned to make on their own, according to David W. Richerson BS’67 (M.S. 1969, The Pennsylvania State University), adjunct professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department, in his “Materials Molding Civilization” course.

Some 23,000 years later, another human (clearly descended from the same clever gene pool as the ceramics maker) figured out how to extract metal from a rock. Another dozen centuries passed, and subsequent curious humans puttered around in the brew, mixing chemical elements to make ever stronger metals, thereby ushering in the Bronze Age.

From there, it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to inventing things like weapons, agriculture, rules (and then laws), written language, and, ultimately, civilization as we know it.

Never underestimate the power of a simple piece of ceramic.

Or the power of a down-to-earth teacher to inspire students to make a difference in their own era’s civilization.

Dave Richerson has spent a lifetime examining how materials affect us and how improvements in those materials can mean breakthroughs in the quality of our lives. He’s now in what he terms the “third stage” of his career—a stage that he believes should be spent giving back and mentoring.

Before becoming an educator, Richerson enjoyed a successful career in the materials engineering industry, focusing on the role of ceramics in projects ranging from body armor to gas-turbine engines. In the late 1970s, while in Arizona, he began blending his industry work with a passion for educating others. Arizona State University needed someone to teach a course on ceramic materials to its mechanical engineering students and hired Richerson. “That got me working with students,” he says, “and I found I enjoyed it.”

Dave Richerson

Then, he explains, “Someone recommended that I take the course notes and put them into a book.” He did, and in 1982 released the first edition of Modern Ceramic Engineering, which he says he wrote “to help other engineers, especially mechanical engineers, better understand ceramic materials and how to design with them for highly stressed structural applications such as gas turbine engine components.” Now in its third edition, it’s still an essential go-to volume in the field.

A few years later, Richerson advanced his professional career by joining a Utah company, Ceramatec, as director of R&D and later as vice president. As a bonus, the move put Richerson and his wife closer to family. Then, in 1991, Richerson left Ceramatec and started his own consulting company, allowing him more time to pursue his educational outreach interests.

At the University of Utah, he began teaching a graduate-level advanced composites course, and then an introduction to ceramics course. He also took on a capstone course involving case studies. “Somewhere in there, I had suggested this course on materials molding civilization,” he says. The general-ed class was approved, and he’s been teaching it ever since, showing students how the mundane-seeming materials around us, like glass and metal and plastics, have affected civilizations past and present.

Many in that class are students for whom science can sometimes be challenging, and Richerson is willing to work with them a little more than most, even offering extra tutoring. “I want people who ordinarily wouldn’t be interested in science to see that science is a normal part of their life, not something to be afraid of,” he says.

Reaching out to students became a lifestyle for Richerson, and it’s not just university students that benefit. In 1991, he was asked to establish an educational outreach committee for the American Ceramics Society (ACerS). “A lot of students just don’t have exposure to the more exciting aspects of science,” he says. For the next decade, Richerson’s committee worked on multiple projects to enhance K-12 education, such as assembling hands-on teaching kits for schools that included a dozen ceramic items (even space shuttle tiles) and a script for instructors.

As part of the education committee outreach, Richerson organized a museum exhibit for the ACerS 100th anniversary that traveled the U.S. for two years, including a stop at the old Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City. To preserve the accumulated samples and knowledge in that exhibit, Richerson wrote another book, The Magic of Ceramics, for nonscientists.

Richerson’s work with local elementary-school kids may be one of his proudest accomplishments. For the fourth grade, he has designed and taught a series of hands-on modules that introduces the kids to rocks and minerals, and from there to rudimentary concepts of atoms and chemistry. For fifth- and sixth-graders, he created modules as part of a National Science Foundation program addressing urban trace gas emissions. Under Richerson’s guidance, elementary students in this program have tackled the gnarly problem of air pollution by lobbying the Utah Legislature to reenact lapsing environmental laws, getting school buses to stop idling, and encouraging the public to replace light bulbs and reduce automobile emissions.

After a legislative session where students from one of his sixth-grade classes were invited to speak, Richerson recalls, “One of the girls actually said, ‘You know, we made a difference today.’ For a sixth-grader to say that, that’s pretty important.”

Richerson is also involved with another National Science Foundation program enabling University of Utah faculty and students to help area high schools integrate engineering into their curricula. When he’s not doing that, he’s designing mineral exhibits for the new Utah Museum of Natural History at the Rio Tinto Center (currently under construction) and planning and preparing a mineral collection for the education section of the museum.

In 2007, Richerson was invited to give the Arthur L. Friedberg Memorial Lecture at the ACerS annual meeting, an honor acknowledging Richerson’s lifetime of contributions to the field of ceramics and materials science. His accomplishments include professional and technological successes, as well as his ability to make materials science both interesting and accessible to students of all ages. As Richerson stated in his lecture, he strongly believes that mentoring “is one of the most important stages of a career. It is an opportunity to give back and to nurture future scientists and engineers.”

Kelley J. P. Lindberg BS’84, a freelance writer based in Layton, Utah, is a regular contributor to Continuum.

Return to Summer 2009 table of contents | Back to top