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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Department pilots innovative undergraduate curriculum program

This past spring, a curricular innovation was introduced to integrate design projects into core classes throughout the undergraduate curriculum in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering.

The program was launched to give students experience with oral presentations, working in a team and practical projects including open-ended design as early as their freshmen year.

The design projects help students develop skills in creative problem solving and communication. The overall approach was inspired by project-oriented engineering curricula at small, private technical universities such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and Illinois Institute of Technology.

“The idea was to emulate key aspects of the open-ended, design-oriented project experiences those sorts of institutions provide, but with the large student-to-faculty ratios we have at a large public research university. Peer mentoring by students is the linchpin,” said former department head Ed Seebauer, who helped implement the new curriculum.”

“So far, it appears that it was very successful,” said Marina Miletic, a lecturer in the department who helped develop the program and taught several of the classes that included the new design projects.

The skills and predispositions being cultivated by the program lie at the core of what many engineering educators deem crucial for American economic competitiveness and job creation.  According to the National Academies Report “The Engineer of 2020 – Visions of Engineering in the New Century,” those include analytical skills, practical ingenuity, creativity, communication skills, agility and an appreciation for life-long learning.

An important goal of the program is to give students a taste of the actual work that engineers do early on in the curriculum.

“They don’t really understand what engineering is until they get to their senior year and they have to design a major process,” Miletic said.

Design projects throughout all four years of courses allow students to get a feel for the type of work they will do as engineers, as they work through difficult math and science courses.

“Projects like this give students an opportunity to glimpse the relevance of the other courses they are taking,” Seebauer said.

Freshmen in the Chemical Engineering Profession class were required to design a new chemical product. Their ideas ran the gamut from a color-changing mascara, deodorant that helps inhibit hair growth, silicone coating for bake ware and silver nanoparticle socks.

Sophomores in the Thermodynamics course were required to design a heating and cooling system for a home using a chemical reaction, and not just a furnace that burns natural gas, Miletic said. Juniors designed a reactor to preform hydrodesulphurization of a chemical.

Groups of four students worked together on the design projects and were mentored by a student who was one year ahead of them in the program. The mentors received individual-study course credit for their work and were graded on their mentoring skills.

Students were required to give 20-minute “sales presentations” about their designs.

Surveys indicated that the design projects were most helpful in teaching the students practical application of engineering, teamwork and presentation skills.

“When students start working at a company, there is this time for decompression from academic life into the workforce,” said Jerrod Henderson, a lecturer in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering who administered the design project program with Miletic.

Students are often challenged by the change in culture from the academic environment to the job. On the job, students are expected to know how to give quality presentations and how to work well on a team.

“Previously in our curriculum, with a few exceptions in elective courses, only in our senior year would students work in teams,” Henderson said.

The program has already attracted outside attention in the form of financial support. BP has donated $35,000 to support the program this school year, top student presenters will receive prizes and awards and industry leaders will serve as judges.

The program this past spring also included co-curricular social activities such as a “Sushi Bowl,” in which students and faculty were invited to go bowling and dine on sushi, and this social outing was important to help them get to know each other.