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Visual Learning In A Material/Energy Balance Class

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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

ChE: Computers and Simulation in the Classroom

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.1592.1 - 12.1592.6



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Paper Authors


Richard Zollars Washington State University

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Dr. Zollars is a professor in, and director of, the School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at Washington State University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado. He has been teaching engineering for 28 years. His interests are colloidal/interfacial phenomena, reactor design and engineering education.

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Christopher Hundhausen Washington State University

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Dr. Hundhausen is an assistant professor of computer science in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Washington State University. Director of the Visualization and End User Programming Lab (, Dr. Hundhausen pursues research on computer-based visualization, simulation, and programming environments for science and engineering education.

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Melissa Stefik Washington State University

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Melissa Stefik is a graduate student in computer science in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Washington State University.

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

processing units, and adding components beyond what are described in the problem statement.

This inability to translate a problem statement into a proper process flow diagram was viewed as a fundamental weakness. Without a proper flow diagram it was going to be impossible to derive an appropriate set of equations to solve thus resulting in an inappropriate solution. This leads to further problems. As Felder and Silverman1 have found, the majority of learners at the college level are visual learners. The problem statements they are given in a material and energy balance class are verbal, however. This disconnect between what they are given and the manner in which they learn the best may be partially responsible for the unacceptably high drop-out rate in material and energy balance classes. Yet this ability to transform verbal information into visual images is an essential skill they will need not only in the material and energy balance class but throughout their careers as chemical engineers.

Solution for the Observed Weakness

Thus, after observing this first group of students, we felt that we needed to develop some type of tool or procedure by which we could help students make the transition from written material to visual material. This is not only a necessary skill but also would allow students to continue learning using their preferred learning style. If students were able to master this skill they would be more successful in the material and energy balance class and thus more likely to succeed in completing their educational goals.

The difficult part of this task is to give the students enough guidance so that they can master the skill of transforming written material to graphical material without giving them so much guidance that they cannot perform this transition without the use of the tool developed for them. In fact a tool similar to what we were envisioning comes with virtually all process simulation software (ASPEN, HYSYS, PRO/II). In these software packages the user is presented a palette of unit operations. These can be dragged and dropped into a worksheet then connected with material and/or energy streams to construct a process flow diagram. After adding material properties and other information the software then constructs and computes all of the necessary material and energy balances.

For a student attempting to learn the basics of chemical engineering these software packages fail for a number of reasons. First, and foremost, is that the skills we sought to build – the ability to develop material and energy balances – is done in the background in these packages. The user is only told whether enough information has been supplied to allow a calculation to occur. Thus a student using these software packages never develops the problem solving skills necessary for them to become a complete engineer. In addition these packages, being intended for use by professionals, contain far more details than can be managed by a student at the time of their first introduction to the discipline.

Zollars, R., & Hundhausen, C., & Stefik, M. (2007, June), Visual Learning In A Material/Energy Balance Class Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--2345

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