This is an expanded version of the Editorial that appeared in the print version of Chemical Engineering Progress, June 2014.
Our discussion of chemical engineering education began in the April issue, with the news story “How Well Are We Preparing ChE Students for Industry?” and my editorial, “Getting ChE Education Right.” This month, we look at education again, with two more articles.
The April articles resonated with Russ Rhinehart, a professor at Oklahoma State Univ., and inspired him to write a letter to the editor, which became this issue’s Commentary, “Educating Students to Become Engineers” (pp. 14–15). By coincidence, the AIChE Journal Highlight, “A Broader Role for the Evolving Engineer” (p. 13), also focuses on education.
In their AIChE Journal Perspective article, Amalie Tuerk and Kelvin Lee of the Univ. of Delaware note that while chemical engineering know-how has played a key role in developing technologies essential for modern society, it will not be enough to solve the complex challenges of today’s world. Political and social issues are becoming increasingly important constraints in engineering design problems, so engineers will need to evolve and increase their engagement with policymakers, social science professionals, and members of other disciplines. Despite this changing landscape, however, few engineering programs emphasize a multidisciplinary problem-solving approach that integrates political, social, and economic considerations, in addition to the obvious technical ones.
I was fortunate to have gone through one that does. As part of my double major in chemical engineering and engineering and public policy (EPP) at Carnegie Mellon Univ., I used my technical elective slots to study energy policy, law and the engineer, and arms control and defense policy, and I filled my humanities electives with courses on organizational behavior, social analysis, and technology and society.
The heart of the EPP program was (and still is) two semester-long interdisciplinary capstone projects. My projects dealt with products liability and diagnostic radiation. I worked with undergraduate and graduate students in civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering, urban and public affairs, social science, and economics. A panel of industry, government, legal, and other experts provided information, advice, and perspective (and input into our grade). And, our professors and graduate-student project managers taught us nothing — rather, they coached us to make wise decisions. In our course evaluations, nearly all of us said the projects were the hardest assignments we ever had, but also the most worthwhile. I was so convinced of the value of those projects that in my final semester, I filled my final technical elective requirement with a third project course — serving as one of two student project managers for a project on coal mine safety.
Tuerk and Lee suggest that to reinforce the interplay among engineering, policy, and society, engineering problems should be framed in a social and political context throughout an engineer’s education, as my EPP electives and projects did.
Of course, the double-major route isn’t for everyone. And adding social and political requirements to an already-overloaded chemical engineering curriculum, or extending the four-year program to four-and-a-half or five years, are probably not practical. But there are ways to prepare chemical engineers to engage with policymakers and others. Here are three ways companies or foundations could invest in its future workforce:
- AIChE offers programs for students before the Spring and Annual Meetings. Although there is a day or two of overlap, few students stay to participate in the latter. With funding, students might extend their stay to interact with practicing engineers and see real-world applications of their chemical engineering education.
- Each summer, the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering (WISE) program, which selects undergraduate students to conduct research on public policy issues in Washington, DC. With more support, the program could accommodate more interns. Maybe similar programs could also be started at the state level.
- By becoming a sponsor of AIChE’s ScaleUp program, companies help subsidize AIChE membership for undergraduate students, which gives them access to CEP, the ChemE-on-Demand collection of webinars and videos, AIChE’s eLibrary, and more.
Without a framework of social and political context, engineering students may be unable to appreciate how their engineering studies prepare them to make meaningful contributions to solve today’s challenges. That’s where AIChE and industry can help fill in the blanks.
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