The teaching of engineering principles to undergraduate engineering majors presents some major challenges.  While colleges and universities are primarily academic institutions, taught by professors and instructors who have advanced (research) degrees, engineering, at least on the undergraduate levels, is aggressively applied, not academic.  This causes a large dichotomy between industry needs and college perspective.  In fact, the dichotomy raises a major theoretical and practical question:  should academic institutions gear their teaching to industry’s needs (i.e. – the Trade School approach) or toward academic and theoretical rigor?

Initial engineering schools were created by industrial firms (either directly or indirectly) to act as feeders to meet their anticipated technical needs.  Thus – the Armor or Carnegie Institutes of Technology, or the University of Delaware Ch.E. Department which was for many years a feeder school for DuPont.  The  creation of a formal Chemical Engineering department at MIT saw the beginning of the academic approach.

I saw both approaches as an undergrad and graduate student.  My undergrad school – The Cooper Union in New York City – was a relentlessly no-frills institution of engineering (at a refreshing low cost to my parents).  There was no pretention of being anything other than a school geared to an industrial career.   To say that the education was practical is an understatement: most of the faculty had spent a significant amount of the careers in industry and had a no-nonsense attitude toward education and young  minds.  I vividly recall that after my class’ first trip to a real chemical plant as sophomores (the Bayway Refinery in New Jersey), half my class dropped out within the next week.

As a graduate student, Princeton University was the polar opposite.  The faculty was relentlessly academic in orientation, and the assumption was that the graduate students would go on to rigorous career in research at a major university (although even in the 1970’s, this was not realistic).  I remember attending a course given by my advisor as a freshman, where he tried to be “practical”.  He brought in a cart full of miscellaneous valves that he very gingerly handled to demonstrate the variations in valve design and function.  He clearly thought they were diseased.

I spent several summers working in industrial concerns (although they were all government labs, so not quite realistic) so I had a pretty good glimmer of the real world.  (In fact – I am sometimes amazed at how little has changed). But when I took my first job as a research engineer with Union Carbide, I was struck by how wide of the mark engineering education really was. 

You did not need 80% of a typical undergraduate education for an industrial job in a typical chemical facility.  The plant engineers ran around in varying degrees of chaos trying to keep the plant running, trying to get process data that typically had not been recorded properly, while depending on help and support from the hourly operating staff that regarded the engineers as nuisances.  Ditto – for industrial research….it was as far away from the University setting as could be imagined.  My first assignment at Carbide was to optimize a cumene oxidation train in a UCC phenol plant in Puerto Rico.   The Puerto Rican staff regarded the American researchers from New Jersey as arrogant pests, and resisted them as much as possible.  In graduate school, the curriculum did not cover the importance of good interpersonal relationships with operating staffs as essential to doing your job.  In fact, the profs almost taught the reverse – which would be fine in a university setting where, as a colleague at RIT pointed out, Asperger’s is a plus.

One of my bosses joked that when he accepted a position at Carbide, his boss told him that the work he would be doing would be very similar to his thesis work.  He said the reality was this job found him running a giant polyethylene extruder in the middle of a plant in rural Ohio at 3:00 AM.

So… how to distill all of the above into a philosophy of engineering education?  Because so many RIT engineering grads will be entering the industrial world (at least initially), it is important that any Ch.E. instructor blend the theoretical with the practical and realistic.  It is all very well that one knows the basics of all the separation processes that he/she might encounter in an industrial milieu and the basics of their designs.  However, it is just as important that the nascent engineer be taught the non-technical components of engineering that are as important future success.  For instance:

A – How to plan and run a successful plant trial of a new process when faced with: 1 – a firm deadline for completion, 2 – the knowledge that the climax will come at 2:00 AM  when your flight home is 9:00 that morning, 3 – that the operating staff likely did little or no work in preparing the unit for your arrival and wish you would leave quickly, 4 –keeping within the trial budget.

B – Learning the unwritten rules: 1 – while your boss is important, his administrative aide is even more important to your future; 2 –  getting your work done while not making enemies in the process, no matter how important you feel your project is.

C – Navigating Corporate politics, which of course, doesn’t exist.

There are any number of learned articles by teaching professionals advocating this or that proven, validated teaching methodology that can be found in Chemical Engineering Education (a professor of mine once remarked that “the experimental method always is successful because the Department involved wants more funding”).  I believe that good engineering education will always depend on:

1 – A thorough teaching of the fundamentals.

2 – Selection of students to do a chalk talk about a given engineering problem being studied to aid the learning process.  And… don’t ask for volunteers – call on students randomly in a class so everyone pays attention.

3 – During a lecture, break off, and again call on students randomly to explain his/her understanding of the issue under discussion.  People don’t fall asleep under these circumstances.

4 – Be entertaining….vary your voice, and speak loudly.  Use examples.

5 – Teach the practical…..whatever theoretical concept you are discussing, user your own experience to illustrate how things work in the real world and where reality deviates from theory.

 In my past instructional activities:

 Presented a seminar on the future of  Consulting to the Rochester Professional Consultants Forum,

 As a Certified Instructor of the Philip Crosby Quality System, teaching a series of Instructional sessions to various R/D Departments to educate them on the system,

 Taught sessions on chemical process safety to all personnel at Rochester Midland Corporation;

 These techniques have served me well.

 JTS – 11/15/17

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *