June 14, 2009
June 14, 2009
June 17, 2009
14.24.1 - 14.24.12
A Degree-Project Approach to Engineering Education Abstract Chemical engineering education is facing a growing disconnect between a curriculum focused primarily on “unit operations” (e.g., heat exchangers and distillation columns) and faculty research that has increasingly emphasized nano- and bio-technology. This discrepancy was recognized by an NSF-sponsored Frontiers in Chemical Engineering Education initiative, recommending a move from the macroscopic, unit-operations educational approach to instead teach from the molecular point of view in a bottom-up fashion. The challenge, however, is to continue to serve the more conventional chemical and petroleum industries while instituting this change. At USC we have developed the two-pronged approach of utilizing (1) a recently-created nanotechnology course-work emphasis within the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and (2) vertically- and horizontally-integrated “degree projects” consisting of nano or bio laboratory modules in successive chemical engineering courses that build upon a student’s growing knowledge in their chosen emphasis, while at the same time relating the degree project to traditional areas of chemical engineering. Students in the nanotechnology emphasis, for example, synthesize nanoparticles in the Mass Balance course, examine the interaction strength between these nanoparticles in Thermodynamics, size-fractionate these nanoparticles in Separations, investigate nanoparticle catalyst in Kinetics, and examine the thermal conductivity of nanocolloids in Heat Transfer, all culminating with an independent research project in the senior year. A comprehensive assessment strategy is utilized to study these changes to the chemical engineering curriculum in collaboration with faculty in Engineering and Education. Three assessment measures are utilized, including an observational rubric, a chemical engineering efficacy scale, and a chemical engineering multidisciplinary scale. This allows robust evaluation of how the merger of traditional chemical engineering subjects with advanced nanotechnology and biotechnology topics using a degree-project approach may better prepare students for today’s increasingly molecular-oriented workplace.
Introduction Education in Chemical Engineering (ChE) education is currently facing a crossroads. There is a disconnect between the curriculum (which is largely focused on unit operations, e.g., heat exchangers, distillation columns, etc., and heavily geared towards commodity chemicals) and faculty research (which has recently emphasized nano- and bio-technology). Furthermore, there is a disparity between the courses students take and the diversity of industries they will serve (approximately 25% of graduates go to work in the chemical industry, while the biotech, food, fuels, and electronics industries continue to aggressively hire ChE graduates). Indeed, the large amount of academic and industrial research in the nano and bio areas will likely result in new technologies, which will lead to an even greater number of graduates working in nontraditional enterprises. This challenge substantiates the need to engage undergraduates in project-based, inquiry learning that requires higher order thinking. An NSF-sponsored, cross-departmental Frontiers in Chemical Engineering Education initiative,1 recommends a paradigm shift in the way Chemical Engineering be taught with an intent of moving away from a macroscopic, unit-operations educational approach toward a molecular point of view. While this allows students to be uniquely prepared for 21st century jobs in emerging microelectronics and biotechnology fields, the challenge becomes to continue serving conventional chemical and petroleum industries.
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