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The First Course ChE Student: Lost in Translation

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Focus on Entry Experiences in Chemical Engineering

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1459.1 - 22.1459.15

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Paper Authors


David F. Ollis North Carolina State University

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David Ollis is Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at North Carolina State University. He co-edited Liberal Education in Twenty First Century Engineering (2004, Peter Lang Publisher) and has often taught the first chemical engineering course: Chemical Process Principles.

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The  First  Course  ChE  Student:   Lost  in  Translation  ?         Historically,  it  is  not  uncommon  for  students  who  have  done  well  in  their    freshman  year  to  struggle  with  their  first  chemical  engineering  course:  mass  and  energy  balances  (MEB).  This  difficulty  is  curious,  as  the  course  is  based  on  concepts  first  encountered  in  high  school  and  first  year  chemistry  (conservation  of  elemental  mass,  stoichiometry)  and  physics  (conservation  of  energy).       The  central  intellectual  activity  for  our  MEB  course,  using  the  now  classic  text  by  Felder  and  Rousseau,  is  reading  problem  statements,  creating  process  flowsheets  and  solving  the  associated  equations.    The  general  solution  approach  is  efficiently  described  as  up  to  a  dozen  steps,  each  delineated  to  ensure  creation  of  future  needed  information.    Executing  these  steps  in  proper  sequence  complexity  not  previously  encountered  in  earlier  science  and  mathematics  courses.  It  is  at  first  a  bit  intimidating,  and  the  interconnectedness  of  steps  requires  a  strict  sequence  approach,  without  which  hazards  abound.       We  propose  a  modified  view  of  this  problem  solution  sequence  vs.  that  identified  above.    In  the  broadest  sense,  the  vocabularies  with  which  the  typical  problem  solution  are  represented  are  three,    verbal,  visual,  and  analytic,  and  are  connected  sequentially  as  shown  below:       Verbal  =======>  Visual    =======>  Analytic                      (translation)            (translation)       We  connect  them  by  arrows  to  indicate  information  flow.  Since  these  worlds  utilize  different  vocabularies,  the  passage  of  information  between  them  represents  acts  of  translation.    The  thesis  of  this  paper  is  that  challenges  to  solving  such  flow  sheet  problems  derive  in  part  from  difficulties  in  translation  between  these  virtual  worlds.    That  such  translation  might  provide  difficulties  for  some  students  is  evident  from  considering  student  learning  types  as  well  as    human  physiology  and  neuroscience.         Herrmann’s  opus,  The  Creative  Brain,    reports  results  of  surveying  more  than  half  a  million  subjects  which  led  him  to  propose  a  four  quadrant  version  of  brain  activities,  divided  as  left  vs.  right  brain,  and  cerebral  vs  limbic  locations.    He  presented  these  results  both  in  verbal  and  graphical  form.    The  latter  representation  indicates  clearly  that  our  typical  MEB    multi-­step  procedure  involves  not  only  lingual  but  also  spatial  translation.       We  argue  that  some  appreciable  portion  of    problem  solving  difficulty    is  attributable  to  translation.    If  true,  then  practice  in  translation  could  prove  useful.    Translation  as  a  new  activity    in  problem  solving  was  suggested  by  Diana  Laurillard  in  her  book,  Rethinking  University  Teaching:  A  Conversational  Framework  for  the  Effective  use  of  Learning  Technologies,  2nd  ed.    She  observed  students  in  her  crystallography    course  who  “recognize  the  need  to  practice  the  mapping  process  between  the  formalism  and  the  reality  it  represents,”    and  proposed  that  “For  the  representation  to  be  intelligible,  they  need  to  practice  the  translation  in  both  directions.(italics  added).  “    In  our  case,  the  verbal,  visual,  and  analytic  descriptions  are  all  virtual  representations,  hence  translation  between  these  entities  represents  a  yet  higher  level  of  abstraction  than  that  identified  by  Laurillard.  Extending  her  suggestion,  we  propose  inclusion  of  explicit  “translation“  exercises  for  the  sophomore  student,  and  offer  a  dozen  example  illustrations  for  first  chemical  engineering  courses.      

Ollis, D. F. (2011, June), The First Course ChE Student: Lost in Translation Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC.

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