CEP: Editorial - Getting ChE Education Right

April
2014

When I was in college, I earned some spending money as a shoe model for a local freelance photographer. Little did I know I would become a cover girl. But a few years later, shortly after I began my career as an editor (at a different magazine), I was tapped for just that role. Wearing a black cap and gown and photographed looking out into a maze of piping in a chemical plant, I represented a young graduate facing my first job in industry. The cover line — “Chemical engineering education: How good is it, really?” — referred to an article that discussed the results of a reader survey conducted by two of my colleagues.

That was 31 years ago. Today, we are still pondering the same question.This month’s lead news story, “How Well Are We Preparing ChE Students for Industry?” (pp. 4–5, 14–15), reports on a plenary session at the most recent AIChE Annual Meeting that explored this issue.

So, how are we doing? Some findings of the 1983 survey sound familiar. Respondents thought that they were fairly well prepared for their first jobs, but lacked communication skills, knowledge of working in a business environment, and the ability to work with others. They overwhelmingly felt that there should be more emphasis placed on the practical aspects of the theory being taught. They were unprepared for the vast amount of communication necessary in industry. Furthermore, results were similar across job-function groups (plant operation, R&D, etc.), except for one — teachers. The authors said, “This seems critical, because teachers make up the curricula. It is important for them to realize that they are different, and that the subjects they find useful are not necessarily those that the majority of their students will most need.”

Fast forward to November 2013. At the meeting, industrial representatives described the competencies that they value most in new hires: unit operations, reaction engineering, analysis and modeling, and process safety, as well as process engineering, equipment design, and business skills (such as technical writing and project management), among others. The late John Chen, a former AIChE President and professor and dean at Lehigh Univ., presented information on faculty strengths at 40 U.S. chemical engineering departments and discussed his finding that the most prevalent field of specialization is bio, followed by materials, unit operations, analysis and modeling, reaction engineering, then nanotechnology.

The juxtaposition of these perspectives and the ensuing discussion started a dialogue about a variety of issues, including: Has there been a statistically significant change in faculty interests and expertise? If so, are changing interests impacting what professors teach? And, are any changes in what professors teach affecting the capabilities of their graduates?

Universities and faculties should not have to face these challenges alone; industry can play a role as well. For example, companies could provide more hands-on learning opportunites by expanding their internship and co-op programs. They could hire faculty for design and plant operations assignments during summers. And, they need to remain engaged in the discussion.

We (as a profession) continue to revisit this topic — not, I suspect, because we can’t get it right. Rather, the ever-changing nature of chemical engineering demands that we — collectively as a profession and through AIChE as an organization — continually monitor the chemical engineering curriculum and student preparedness for the industrial sector .

 

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