In his field of materials science and engineering, Diran Apelian is known for his pioneering work in solidification processing, including molten-metal processing, filtration of metals and aluminum foundry engineering, which contributed to an improved process for the manufacturing of aluminum foil. In his position as the Howmet Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Metal Processing Institute at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Apelian — a member of the National Academy of Engineering — is developing a process with the potential to dramatically reduce energy consumption in aluminum processing.

His recycled, re-cast aluminum could increase fuel efficiency in cars by reducing their weight.

diranapelian_newThis research has garnered Apelian numerous awards and considerable industry prestige, and yet at WPI he may become better known for putting the pizzazz back into undergraduate course work, and re-kindling the “sense of wonder” that engaged students bring to their studies.

In November 2010, Apelian joined the UC Davis Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science as a distinguished visiting professor, where he’ll teach an undergraduate course in materials science each winter quarter.

“We need to change the way we profile engineering, and we need to rethink how to recruit students into engineering,” he wrote in the April 2010 of JOM, the publication of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society.

Apelian already had put theory to practice, by co-teaching a 2008 first-year WPI seminar course titled “Sustainable Development for the 21st Century — Making Our World.” Allied with WPI humanities and arts professor Svetlana Nikitina, Apelian presented a series of global “great problems” in a way that challenged students to discuss, explore and attempt to solve impending world-changing issues.

“The way we should recruit students into engineering is not to convey that they have to be strong in math and the sciences, and that engineering is tough,” Apelian continued, in his JOM essay, “but rather to emphasize that the societal challenges we face will require leadership, innovation, technology and the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Apelian and Nikitina repeated the course in 2009, and were gratified by the way their students became empowered: more excited about their other coursework, thanks to having been connected to real-life issues and given the opportunity to experience — while working in teams — the opportunity to make a difference.

Beginning winter quarter 2012, Apelian will attempt to reproduce this undergraduate excitement on the West Coast, by leading a similar seminar course at UC Davis.

His goal remains the same: “We need to make the case that engineering is a wonderful path for a fulfilled life.”

For more information on the College of Engineering’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, please email Oliver Ramsey.