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Examples of Virtual Teaching Implementations in Chemical Process Control during the COVID-19 Lockdown

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2021 Fall ASEE Middle Atlantic Section Meeting


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Publication Date

November 12, 2021

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November 12, 2021

End Date

November 13, 2021

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Jacky Huang Villanova University

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Zuyi (Jacky) Huang is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Villanova University. He teaches Chemical Process Control (for senior students) and Systems Biology (for graduate students) at Villanova. He is enthusiastic in applying innovative teaching methods in class to educate students with modeling and control skills. His research is focused on developing advanced modeling and systems analysis techniques to manipulate microbial biological systems for generating biofuels from wastewater and for combating biofilm-associated pathogens. His BESEL group developed the first model for microbial desalination cells and the first metabolic modeling approach for quantifying the biofilm formation of pathogens.

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COVID-19 has caused more than 4.54 million deaths and infected more than 219 million people in the world by Sep 3, 2021. The high infection rate of this deadly virus had imposed the lockdown of mangy schools in the US in the rest of Spring semester since the late March of 2020. This virus has resulted in the switch of the traditional in-person teaching to totally virtual format. This brought significant challenges for teaching engineering courses like Chemical Process Control, in which difficult math operations require high interaction between the instructor and students. In addition, real-life experiments like PID controller design that offer students practical control experience are not able to implement due to the campus lockdown. In this work, we present the approaches implemented in the course Chemical Process Control in Spring 2020 at Villanova University and share the feedback from the students on the virtual teaching format. In particular, every lecture was recorded and annotated note was provided on Blackboard for students. Video-based trainings were given so that students were able to implement the mathematical operations they learned from classes in MATLAB. In addition, MATLAB models were developed by students to simulate typical biochemical processes such as chemical reactors and cell growth in bioreactors. These simulation models offer students a chance to obtain deeper understanding of the processes. In order to offer lifelike experience on data-driven modeling and PID controller tuning, recorded-videos were offered to students so that they were able to learn the experimental approaches. Real experimental data were then given to students to practice how to derive first-order-plus-time-delay model from the provided data and to evaluate the effect of the controller parameter settings on the controller performance. Moreover, MATLAB models were used as in-silico objects for students to practice PID controller tuning. Homework assignments and exams were used to evaluate the students’ technical performance. In particular, the same final exam problems as last year were used to compare students’ performance between the in-person and on-line formats. Two sample t-test indicates that Class 2020 students had better final exam performance than Class 2019 (P-value 0.0059). Two sample t-test was also implemented on the teaching evaluation data for 2019 and 2020 (including evaluation of the teaching effectiveness as it contributed to students’ learning, and students’ own work in the course). While the individual items in the teaching evaluation data will be disclosed in detailed in the formal paper, the t-test turns out that the online format got better evaluation in both teaching effectiveness (P-value 1.5971e-05) and students’ engagement (P-value 0.0046). All these survey results are surprising, as certain students mentioned in the open-ended section that they preferred the in-person format. Potential explanations for online format getting better survey results are implied from the following comments from students: 1) the recorded videos, provided notes, and Zoom office hours offered students flexibility in the pandemic lockdown; 2) the modeling and simulation assignments provided certain compensation for their practical experience in designing controllers; and 3) additional resources were provided to help students master the skills.

Huang, J. (2021, November), Examples of Virtual Teaching Implementations in Chemical Process Control during the COVID-19 Lockdown Paper presented at 2021 Fall ASEE Middle Atlantic Section Meeting, Virtually Hosted by the section.

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