Document Type

Article

Subject Area(s)

Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Catalysis and Reaction Engineering, Physical Sciences and Mathematics, Engineering Physics

Abstract

The chemical engineering curriculum in the United States has trained generations of technical experts who have successfully optimized chemical processes and products once they entered the chemical industry. The U.S. chemical industry, however, has entered a critical stage in which it must be able to create new and differentiated value through technical innovations that arc essential for long-term survival. This innovation process will require new skills that go far beyond the traditional expertise for the optimization of tasks possessed by young chemical engineers. The innovators must be able to identify new opportunities, explore the boundaries of technology, evaluate critical issues, develop and implement technologies, and communicate effectively with scientists and engineers from other disciplines. Therefore, one of the most important educational tasks of a modern university, in combination with a strong theoretical foundation, is to challenge students in laboratory courses to think, explore, hypothesize, plan, solve, and evaluate. The typical sequence of laboratory skills development stops short of introducing young engineers to the most critical aspects of experimental work. Chemical engineers usually begin developing their laboratory skills in chemistry courses, where experiments are closely managed. At this early stage in their development, students follow detailed instructions and learn basic principles by observing the results. In the undergraduate engineering laboratory course (the "unit operations lab"), students have more freedom in experimental design but still have well-defined objectives and manipulate equipment someone else has set up. It is rare, however, for undergraduate students to be taught how to create new experiments. It is also rare for undergraduate students, and hence beginning graduate students, to have an appreciation for the care, planning, design, and testing required to produce equipment that will give reliable and useful results. Even such simple issues as leak testing or adapting analytical devices to new tasks are outside most students* experience. Even more important is an absence of opportunities to learn how the lessons learned from the failure of an approach can be fed back into the empirical process to seed the finally successful idea. All these skills require more creative freedom than is usually allowed in a well-structured laboratory course. In the novel laboratory teaching approach described here, we try to provide students with a learning environment that allows them to develop advanced experimental skills that are necessary for success in research and development environments.

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