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Computer Simulation Of Laboratory Experiments For Enhanced Learning

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.393.1 - 12.393.14



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Paper Authors


William Clark Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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William Clark is associate professor of Chemical Engineering at WPI. He earned a B.S. from Clemson University and a Ph.D. from Rice University, both in Chemical Engineering. After postdoctoral work at the Technical University of Denmark and the University of Delaware he has taught at WPI since 1986. His current research interests include finite element computer modeling for improving separation processes as well as for improving engineering education.
Address: WPI, Department of Chemical Engineering, 100 Institute Rd., Worcester, MA 01609; telephone: (+1) 508.831.5259; fax: (+1)598.831.5853;

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David DiBiasio Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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David DiBiasio is associate professor and department head of Chemical Engineering at WPI. After industrial experience at DuPont Company, he received his Ph.D. at Purdue and has taught at WPI since 1980. He has served as chair of the Chemical Engineering Division of ASEE and as a member of the ABET Education and Accreditation Committee for AIChE. His research interests are in teaching and learning, experiential education, and international engineering education.
Address: WPI, Department of Chemical Engineering, 100 Institute Rd., Worcester, MA 01609; telephone: (+1) 508.831.5372; fax: (+1)598.831.5853;

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Computer Simulation of Laboratory Experiments for Enhanced Learning Abstract

It is often difficult for chemical engineering students to obtain a clear understanding of the physical processes going on inside the complex industrial scale equipment they study in the laboratory. We are testing the hypothesis that computer simulations showing the solutions to the differential equations that govern the fluid flow, heat transfer, mass transfer, and chemical reactions within the equipment will solidify the link between experiment and theory and provide improved learning. In this paper we report on the development and implementation of a simulation of a double pipe heat exchanger in our unit operations laboratory using COMSOL Multiphysics™, a commercial finite element modeling software package. We also describe our evaluation plan and present preliminary results on comparison of performance and attitudes of students who used the simulation to those who did not.

Problems in the Laboratory

One educational goal of a typical engineering laboratory is to help students understand fundamental principles by connecting theory and equations in their text books to real world applications with real equipment and data. In addition to this goal, our senior level chemical engineering unit operations laboratory also tries to promote higher order thinking skills while meeting some of the ABET 2000 criteria regarding professional practice such as “an ability to communicate effectively”, “an ability to function on a multi-disciplinary team”, “an ability to design and conduct experiments as well as to analyze and interpret data”, and “an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems”1. Therefore, we do not provide specific instructions for the laboratory experiments to our three-person student teams. Instead, we give only brief one- or two-page general guidelines with hints about what should be learned along with safety information and suggested readings from textbooks that should already be familiar to the students. The teams are required to write a pre-lab report to ensure that they review the fundamental principles, “design” their own experiments, and communicate effectively by preparing written instructions that a lab technician could follow. This pre-lab exercise is also designed to help promote higher order thinking in the final report writing stage. Ideally, after the pre-lab stage, students will have a very good understanding of the fundamental principles and the expected results and will be able to collect all the necessary data as well as do most of the calculations and routine analysis of results while they are in the laboratory. That way, they have time for high level interpretation and critical analysis of the results at the final report writing stage. When we grade the final reports, we look for evidence of higher order analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as well as demonstration of a clear understanding of the fundamental principles and phenomena occurring. If something is missing, we try to provide feedback that encourages students to think more deeply about the subject when they prepare oral reports that are required for some of the experiments each team conducts.

Unfortunately, we have found that despite our good intentions, some students still end up at the oral report stage not only having failed to demonstrate higher order thinking skills but sometimes still lacking a clear understanding of “what is happening inside the pipes”. Part of the problem

Clark, W., & DiBiasio, D. (2007, June), Computer Simulation Of Laboratory Experiments For Enhanced Learning Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--1937

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