Throughout the history of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, research has been driven by society's technological needs—as construction, transportation, and industrialization expanded, procurement and production of metals were the Department's focus. Later, ceramics and polymers were in development though many of their potential uses in applications were not seen until the Second World War at which time DMSE assisted in the Manhattan Project as well as in many others areas of military manufacturing and development. Currently, society's technological needs are driven by speed and size; DMSE is involved in research devoted to making smaller and lighter batteries that are better able to be recharged, to increasing the capacities of data storage, and moving data more quickly through use of photonic devices. Exciting developments see DMSE involved in research in biomaterials and vaccinations and in creating new equipment for the military through the use of nanotechnologies.

MIT's DMSE, like the field of Materials Science and Engineering, grew out of the studies of metallurgy and mining. When MIT opened in 1865, Course 3 consisted of geology and mining. Later, the department's name was changed to the Department of Mining and Metallurgy and over the next fifty years, the disciplines of geology, mining, and metallurgy were repeatedly joined and separated until in the 1940's, MIT discontinued the study of mining engineering and Course 3 was named the Department of Metallurgy.

In 1967 the department name changed to the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science and in 1974 to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. These name changes reflect the growing awareness, both at MIT and in the field, that materials should be studied in terms of their behavior and characteristics, rather than by specific class.

At the time of MIT's move to Cambridge in 1917, Department alumni provided space in Building 8, space that has seen many changes but is still used by DMSE today. Labs, including the new Laboratory for Advanced Materials, the Undergraduate Teaching Lab, and the NanoLab, line the Infinite Corridor along with displays of past accomplishments from Department faculty and students. Currently, DMSE occupies space across MIT's campus (this map indicates the geographic spread) and thereby interacts with many other academic departments.

The Glass Lab holds three sales each year: one in December, one before Mother's Day, and the Great Glass Pumpkin Patch in the fall.