(88a) Teaching Process Calculations to Undergraduate Chemical Engineers: An Engaged & Energized Online Class | AIChE

(88a) Teaching Process Calculations to Undergraduate Chemical Engineers: An Engaged & Energized Online Class



“Process Calculations” is a required class in undergraduate ChE curricula worldwide. It serves not only as a good introduction to the subject but is also a pre-requisite for many ChE courses including Reaction Engineering, Separation Processes and so on. At IIT Madras, the course is in the first year of the four year undergraduate program, and sees a typical class size of ~100 students. Managing the stress levels of the students, alongside the learning goals for the course and the evaluations as required by administration, is a major challenge. In this talk, we want to illustrate a few best practices, applicable to online/hybrid classes in particular, with examples of student performance and testimonials.

Philosophy & guiding principles

In putting together the details of the course, we wanted to ensure that the first year undergraduate students felt a lot of excitement for chemical engineering. Second, examinations and evaluations were causing unprecedented levels of stress and competitiveness, and we wanted to do better with those, with the constraints of the existing systems. Finally, as the class was completely online, and the usual campus environment was absent, we wanted to shoulder an additional responsibility of building a sense of belonging to IIT Madras.

We are proponents of what we call “Play to learn” or “game based learning” at IIT Madras. Over the past few years, both in physical classrooms and in online ones, it has been our attempt to bring in more play and fun. In an elective course titled “Let us play to learn” we have students custom-building games and interactivities – these include board, mobile hypercasual, quiz-based & card games – for subsequent use in various classes. The ideas are gaining good popularity in both the student and faculty communities. We wanted to harness our learnings from this work, into a full-fledged core engineering course, and Process Calculations, as an introductory ChE core course, provided a great platform for the same.

Overall the goal of this teaching experiment was to provide an engaged and energized learning of the objectives of the course, to a class of 100+ students, in an online mode, using the broad guiding principles of game based learning.

Tools and Techniques

A detailed description of the evolution of the course is provided in this section. While several elements are common in chemical engineering pedagogy, the unique challenges due to completely online instruction, for a population that is not used to it, are addressed with new measures that are easy for instructors and learners to adopt. A few of the unsolved issues are highlighted as well, to enable further discussions, and future improvements.

  • Resource Materials

The standard textbook used at IIT Madras for this course is the popular ‘Elementary principles of chemical processes’ by Felder and Rousseau. We found that it was particularly important to stick to the data tables, units, and graphical information in this book, to avoid confusions. In addition, a handful of short videos (10-15mins) long to described via animations, for the more difficult/confusing concepts were provided. All the lecture slides, and video recordings of the classroom interactions were made available to students as well.

  • Interactive Learning

A common challenge faced by instructors in such large classes is getting students to interact – to ask or answer questions. The online mode further exacerbated this issue. It has been our finding that mixing in “fun” and “serious” questions, particularly via anonymous, online polling, is very helpful. Rating, word cloud, and open text modes of polls were also frequently used in class. A text chat-based discussion forum, worked very well in a live class, as well.

  • Bite Sized Fun Learning & Assessment

We used short quizzes to provide well-rounding learning, in two ways. One, was a self-assessment tool, built like an online game with some fun graphics (bowling alleys to get full strikes at; mountains to climb, etc). The second was a graded “summary” quiz at the end of every class. Students routinely appreciated these interventions that helped them keep up-to-date on the course material, while having fun in a fail-safe manner.

  • Enabling Peer Learning

A 30 mins breakout room session, during class, to enable students to discuss the tutorial solution methodology in groups, was provided. Students later individually solved the problems and uploaded their answers for checking by the teaching assistants. Possibly due to the students being in their homes (not on campus), the effectiveness of breakout rooms was not as good as could be.

  • Quick Feedback and In-depth Reflections

Through the course of the semester, it was critical to not only remain open to receiving feedback from students, but also to act upon it with immediacy. The inputs regarding how the learning and progress were proceeding came up in various ways – a quick and immediate “reaction” (thumbs up/down, smiley/frowny faces) in the online class helped gauge if majority had understand the explanation provided. At the end of every week of classes, students were encouraged to answer open ended questions about the taught material, comment on their own learning and progress through the course, via an online form.

  • Assessments

Three exams were conducted in the course. One was a rapid fire online quiz (with a leaderboard and some memes for fun), the second was based on typing numerical answers in an online form, and a final exam involving hand written solutions and uploading, were conducted. These exams were graded in the conventional manner, with emphasis on getting the right answer and the correct sequence of steps; and contributed 50% of the final grade, whereas the daily quizzes, class participation, reflections & tutorials contributed the rest. Overall, the goal was to give a judicious mix of points for effort and accuracy, while fitting into the constraints set by the institute administration.


A few important motivating factors drive us to recommend these as good – if not best - practices to others. First, the level of interaction – in a typical in-person class, 10-20 students at the maximum answer or ask questions. The roster and specific calling out of students used here, quickly moved this number up to ~95 students (out of 118 total registered). Second, the reflections forms proved to be a great way to obtain in-depth feedback from students. Many of the comments could be used directly to improve the course experience immediately, in the next week.

Students frequently expressed their relief at being able to learn about and build on chemical engineering concepts, in a less judgmental, uncompetitive, fun manner. Balancing effort with quality, with tools used so students could self-evaluate (via games like the bowling alley one), were definitely ideas that bore rich dividends. The polls, were helpful to gauge the mood of the class, and served as good de-stressors as well.

Some of the tough parts of a Process Calculations course involve the use of diagrams – like the Psychrometric Chart in design of air-conditioning systems. While the use of the basic principles of mass and energy balances are well illustrated in such applications, they have often been a source of fear and frustration among undergraduate ChE students. With the game-based learning and very interactive mode of instruction used here, several students voluntarily stated that this was their “favourite” topic in the course!

Some of the final comments by students are shown below:

  • Well, I was not a very big fan of chemical reactions and inorganic chemistry. Earlier thought that chemical engineering=chemist. After this course, I realised that chemical engineering is just the perfect branch for me..
  • This course taught a lot of practical things, and all these concepts and problem solving skills will really be very helpful to us as chemical engineers. The course structure was organized and that made it interesting to study it.
  • The best part was interactive session and time to time quiz for regular evaluation.
  • CH is the only course that doesn't feel disjoint from reality

Some of the elements of the course that worked less well were – peer interaction and tutorials. In the initial part of the semester, the students were reluctant to speak in their breakout rooms. Scanning and uploading hand-written answers was also a challenge for those with poor internet connectivity/older devices. Light weight apps or online modules integrated into learning management systems are probably better in terms of uniformity of learner experience.


The Covid pandemic has led to a major upheaval in our teaching-learning. Forging friendships, co-operative learning, and development of professor-student bonds have proved particularly difficult in these times. Using the principles of game-based learning in the first ChE course of their curriculum, can be critical in retaining their interest and enthusiasm for the subject. The evaluations also indicate an upswing in the class average marks, underscoring the possibility of integrating the prescribed grading methodologies, within these new ideas. The various online tools opened the doors to several new means for energizing and engaging students, and it is our hope that these will find a regular place in the future.