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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Chemical Engineering Education, Part One

It occurred to me yesterday that I have no idea what the top ten bulk chemical products in the world are.  I cannot connect the common names (limestone, potash) to the most basic of chemical reagents, and I have no idea where or how they are derived.  I just barely grasp the general processes that occur in an oil refinery, and I know next to nothing about any other industrially-relevant chemical transformations.

I can recite Avogadro's Number far beyond a reasonable number of decimals, but I have no idea how the number was discovered or derived and I can't explain its significance outside of its relationship to the seemingly arbitrary definition of the 'mole'.  The same goes for the Boltzmann constant, the Faraday constant, the ideal gas constant.  I have no idea who Avogadro, Boltzmann, and Faraday where.  I have only a hazy understanding of where chemical engineering came from - arisen somehow in the leap from alchemy to industrial chemistry, tied to the Industrial Revolution and the steam engine - and this is only due to a few minutes here and there of my own efforts.

For all of the Liberal Artists endlessly beating the drum of 'general education', higher education's efforts to instill something beyond the knowledge of a handful of mathematical relationships seem to have failed outright.  A third of my education in college, and a full four-fifths pre-college, has technically been in the 'liberal arts'.  The failure began in what was NOT emphasized: how my chosen discipline connects to the real world.  The lack of history and the absence of those people and the discoveries they made robs science of it humanity and strips it of the logical progression of our understanding that makes it all make sense.  Without history, there is no foundation upon which to consider the present.  The failure ends at the feet of the Ivory Tower Intellectual, who deems it all (reality) to be too complicated and too practical, and makes the decision to leave it all out entirely... in favor of a grand meaningless molecular understanding.

So we sit around and type away at our computers and derive silly things at the atomic level, all the while remaining ignorant of the REAL chemical engineering that goes on right in front of us!

Science is a story of the most improbable happenings and the people who made them happen, and it is a story that continues to the present.  To deny the connections science has with the real world is to turn away from practicality, applicability, usefulness.  The drive for academic prestige (a synonym for 'complete irrelevance') has enabled the Ivory Tower Intellectual to move in on the discipline - even at the good old Land Grant universities, which have pledged from the beginning to serve the people by ensuring that knowledge is applied.

If Chemical Engineering wishes to avoid becoming a wanna-be Chemistry, the philosophy with which it is taught must change.  Every course must be organized from general to specific, providing the real-world context to keep students' interest and attention.  Every course needs to start with the history: where did all of this come from?  How and why was it discovered?  Who discovered it?

Give Newton and Leibniz a rest - analytical mathematics is NOT the future of this discipline.  Invite Johannn Becher to pull up a chair instead, and perhaps we'll all learn a thing or two.

3 comments:

  1. Reading your comment on Avogadro's number reminded me of Jean Baptiste Perrin, he who demonstrated experimentally the essential discontinuity of matter (the physical existence of molecules) through empirically determining Avogadro's number.

    Who's heard of HIM?

    We learn about molecules in chemistry, the "molecular science," but how do we know they exist? Axiomatically.

    Let's take General Chemistry from an epistemological standpoint: we spend the course explaining physical phenomena using atomic logic (at the behest of the instructor) and use the fact that we can do so AS justification for why the atomic hypothesis must hold. We do so without examining in detail why we should believe the atomic hypothesis at all, regardless of the fact that it runs counter to first intuition with the physical world.

    As far as chemical engineering education goes, I think PSU students should know that our school graduated one of the "fathers" of chemical engineering (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hultz_Walker)

    That said, here's another and another:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neal_Amundson

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_E._Davis

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  2. Excellent points!

    Education is by far the hardest job. Most professors in this department think about it in terms of 'telling the students a number of facts', which only highlights how weak their grip on the conceptual backstory really is.

    I believe that the problem is rooted in the job description of 'The Professor', which simply serves too many masters to be effective at much of anything.

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  3. Ironically, one of the original 'core courses' of chemical engineering was 'industrial chemistry' where the entire course was an enumeration of the top 50 industrial chemicals ... how they were made, what they are used for .... But before you get nostalgic about the good old days of chemical engineering, I can attest that the course varied from an interesting anecdotal discorse of an knowledgible practitioner ... to a rote memoization of a list of sterile facts (unfortuneately, my instructor was the latter). It is the combination of experience, time to learn the material, and desire to present it in an interesting way that makes all the difference.

    Unfortunately, it is true, that the middle component (time) has been stolen by a system that not only emphasizes the $master$ but has made it an implicit prerequisite to having graduate student help to deal with an educational system that now has become dependent upon the 'economies of scale'.

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