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Problem-Based Lab Education: Redesign of a Senior Year Chemical Engineering Lab Course to Promote Autonomy, Critical Thinking, and Problem-Solving Skills

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2019 ASEE PNW Section Conference


Corvallis, Oregon

Publication Date

March 20, 2019

Start Date

March 20, 2019

End Date

March 22, 2019

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Paper Authors


Gabriel Potvin University of British Columbia, Vancouver

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Dr. Gabriel Potvin is a faculty member in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Chair of the Vantage College Applied Science program at UBC. He is heavily involved in the development of first-year programs, problem-based education, science and engineering outreach, and teaching training for engineers.

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This abstract is submitted to the 2019 ASEE PNW conference to be considered for an abstract-reviewed presentation (not a full paper).

Upper-year engineering students are quite adept at collecting and organizing experimental data as part of prescribed laboratory exercises. Although these labs provide good opportunities to develop analytical skills, they offer few avenues to apply creative problem-solving or experimental design skills. Furthermore, when students are faced with technical difficulties in the lab, many rely on TAs or instructors to solve them and are reluctant to, or simply assume that it is not up to them to, attempt a solution themselves. To alleviate some of these issues, building on previous work, the senior year chemical engineering lab course at UBC was redesigned using a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) framework and greatly reduced formal supervision, with the aim to promote resourcefulness and problem-solving, troubleshooting, and critical thinking skills. The structure and deliverables of this course will be described, student performance assessed, and the feedback of students regarding this approach will be presented.

In this course, student teams perform a single multi-week PBL lab per term. An instruction manual for the relevant equipment is provided, but with no suggested experimental design or data collection protocol. Open-ended industrially-relevant problem statements, consisting of design, optimization or investigative objectives, are provided as suggested context, but teams are not bound by these statements and are encouraged to propose alternative problems based on their interests. Before beginning their experimental work, each team prepares a formal project proposal, which includes a comprehensive review of background theory, experimental design, budget an environmental impact assessment, and safety audit of the procedure. At the beginning of each experimental session, teams provide an updated work plan outlining the work performed to date, the work to be performed during that lab session, and any changes to the original proposal deemed necessary, mirroring industrial protocols. Students present their work both orally and as a written report at the end of the session.

To increase the independence and self-reliance of the teams, TA and instructor involvement is greatly reduced. TAs are only present in the lab for the first hour of each experimental session to review and evaluate the work plan, ensure the students are prepared, and that they are able to perform their experiments safely. TAs are instructed not to directly answer technical questions and are there only as observers. This forced students to make their own decisions and judgements, troubleshoot any technical issues or unexpected results, and experiment with the process themselves.

When initially presented with the course structure, many students were apprehensive, with some voicing their displeasure at having traditional supports and direction removed. At the conclusion of the course however, student feedback, collected through a survey, was overwhelmingly positive. The vast majority of students reported benefitting from the independence and responsibility for their work, with the majority self-reporting improvements in confidence in their engineering judgement and critical thinking skills. A comprehensive analysis of student feedback will be presented.

Potvin, G. (2019, March), Problem-Based Lab Education: Redesign of a Senior Year Chemical Engineering Lab Course to Promote Autonomy, Critical Thinking, and Problem-Solving Skills Paper presented at 2019 ASEE PNW Section Conference, Corvallis, Oregon.

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