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First Impressions: Engaging First-Year Undergraduates in Chemical Engineering Design

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Chemical Engineering in K-12 and the First Year

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

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Paper Authors


Tommy George Harvard University

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Tommy George is a graduate student at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University. He is currently working towards a PhD in Engineering Science with a research focus in renewable energy storage, and he graduated from Tufts University with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering. Tommy worked with the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach throughout his undergraduate studies, developing ongoing interest in the design of engaging engineering learning experiences for a variety of audiences - from elementary school students to undergraduates.

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Alexander Seth Klein

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Alex Klein graduated from Tufts University in 2019 with a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering, while also minoring in Engineering Education. He now works as a mechanical engineer at iRobot. Since his arrival at Tufts, Alex has been very active with Tufts' Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), especially as a fellow in their Student Teacher Outreach Mentorship Program (STOMP). As a STOMP Fellow, he co-designed and co-taught original activities and curricula for elementary school students (Grades 3-5) as well as a yearlong robotics curriculum for middle school students (Grades 6-8).

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Kristen B Wendell Tufts University

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Kristen Wendell is Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Adjunct Associate Professor of Education at Tufts University. Her research efforts at at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach focus on supporting discourse and design practices during K-12, teacher education, and college-level engineering learning experiences, and increasing access to engineering in the elementary school experience, especially in under-resourced schools. In 2016 she was a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

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Many first-year students arrive in undergraduate engineering programs eager to tackle problems with technical complexity and societal relevance. Chemical engineering provides a powerful set of tools to engage with pressing challenges in energy, health care, and environmental domains. Academics, industry professionals, and educators alike emphasize the problem-based approach of collaborative, creative, transdisciplinary teamwork as the driving force of a productive engineering education. Yet, professional success in engineering requires diligent training in applied science, often in a variety of academic departments, and not necessarily including the context of engineering design. Thus, first impressions of engineering design are a critical bridge between the motivations of incoming first-years and the rigors of a complete engineering education.

In this paper, we present a 60-minute Desktop Reactor Design workshop designed to introduce first-year chemical engineering students to their prospective field of study. In the workshop, participants brainstormed a comprehensive set of relevant parameters for engineering a chemical reactor, designed and tested several iterations of a hands-on desktop model to optimize mixing in such a reactor, and drew conclusions from their empirical observations. Then, the learners worked in a team to prototype a reactor vessel with 3D modelling software, justifying their design choices by considering reactor volume and geometry favorable for mixing. Throughout these activities, learners were curious and engaged, thoughtfully weighing and selecting design choices, offering and debating new ideas, and raising questions to be answered throughout the rest of their chemical engineering studies.

Designing this workshop, we aimed to activate the existing knowledge, skills, and motivations of these learners as resources for building knowledge about the chemical engineering discipline and for identifying and practicing skills for creative and productive engineering design. Moreover, these learning experiences followed a cycle of reflection and action to support collaboratively building knowledge without first having to introduce significant amounts of background content. This workshop affirms the problem-based motivations of engineering students while providing relevant connections to the chemical engineering discipline, forming an essential bridge for first-year undergraduates.

George, T., & Klein, A. S., & Wendell, K. B. (2020, June), First Impressions: Engaging First-Year Undergraduates in Chemical Engineering Design Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34673

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