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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.