Pittsburgh K-12 Outreach Event: A Taste of Chocolate…and Chemical Engineering!

Lou Felice (front, left) from The Hershey Company explains to the students the role of chemical engineers in making chocolate candy products.

On Sunday, October 28th, a group of 27 students from several Pittsburgh-area high schools learned more about chocolate and chemical engineering, at an outreach event organized by AIChE's Societal Impact Operating Council (SIOC). The event was held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, site of the 2012 AIChE Annual Meeting. The centerpiece of the event was a session led by engineers from The Hershey Company, during which the students learned about chemical engineers' roles in the food industry, through a presentation, hands-on experiment, and a problem-solving exercise. In the hands-on experiment, the students explored the importance of viscosity in making various chocolate products and used an emulsifier, soya lechitin, to modify the viscosity of melted chocolate. Armed with this knowledge, they then worked in teams to solve a practical engineering problem - determining the economic-optimum pump and pipe size for transporting 5,000 gal/hr of a less-viscous (for chocolate bars) and a more-viscous (for chocolate kisses) chocolate melt 1,000 feet from a storage tank to production equipment. Guided by AIChE student members from the University of Pittsburgh, every team was able to complete the problem and determine the right answer, qualifying for a selection of Hershey-themed prizes. In a second activity, the high-school students visited several of the Chem-E-Car teams during the morning Chem-E-Car Poster Session. Members of each team spent time talking with small groups of the students, explaining the goal of the competition (use a chemical reaction to propel a vehicle, and then a second chemical reaction to stop the vehicle, as close as possible to a designated target), and the reasoning behind that team's choices of reactions and vehicle design. Following, the high-school students viewed a portion of the competition, now knowing how the competition related to chemical engineering having a rooting interest in several of the teams competing.

A student experiments with modifying the viscosity of melted chocolate through the addition of an emulsifier.

Between the above two activities, high-school students attended a panel discussion focused on chemical engineering education and careers. The nine panelists encompassed a wide range of chemical-engineering experiences, including ChE graduate students, professors, young professionals, and more-experienced engineers from industry. The discussion covered many topics of interest to the students, including: why the panelists chose chemical engineering as a career, the decision to start a career with a B.S. degree over pursing grad school, and the importance of mathematics in an engineering career. One of the volunteers had this to say after the event:

"I ... was very impressed by the whole operation. The Hershey folks were very prepared and engaging. The students were really into it. The high school students were among the most interested and participating bunches that I have seen in a long time (and I do a lot of high school activities/tours in Athens, OH). It is probably because they have self-selected to spend a Sunday with us as opposed to looking at the activity as simply a way to miss a day of school. I believe that the event was a success and should be continued."

And, in an email sent after the event, one of the high-school students commented:

"Thanks for a great time learning about chemical engineering. It was very interesting, especially the part where we added water to chocolate which gave a very surprising result. I ended up having a great time."

Students work in teams to solve the engineering design problem.

Following the event, several groups within AIChE (SIOC, Education Division, YPC, MAC, Fuels and Petrochemical Division) expressed interest in forming a committee to make such outreach events a regular occurrence at both the Spring and Annual AIChE meetings. With that in mind, watch for the next event in San Antonio in April 2013! As chemical engineers, we know that, every day, we work on solutions to many of the world's most critical problems, in areas as diverse as energy production, clean air and water, advanced materials, and a safe and abundant food supply. So, let's keep spreading the message!