Bay Area High School Students Experience Chemical Engineering at AIChE Annual Meeting

Amid the organized chaos that was the lobby of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square Hotel on Sunday morning, November 3rd, 47 high school students eager to learn more about chemical engineering made their way through the maze of people to AIChE's Outreach in Action event. The 9th through 12th grade students came from five high schools in the San Francisco Unified School District, with little to no knowledge about what it is that we as chemical engineers actually do.

Over the course of the morning, the students visited the Chem-E-Car poster session, learned about the properties of carbon dioxide through several table-top experiments, and heard from an accomplished group of chemical engineering professionals about career opportunities. Following a break for lunch, the students were invited to return to witness the Chem-E-Car competition, and about 20 of the students did so.

The event started with the high school students talking with members of 14 of this year's Chem-E-Car teams, who had previously volunteered to explain the operating principles and design aspects of their respective vehicles. The excitement conveyed by the teams proved to be an upbeat and energetic way to engage the high schoolers, who then returned to the event meeting room eager to learn more.

Volunteers assisting students with their experiments

Next, the students were educated about the properties of carbon dioxide through a series of experiments designed by Prof. Tony Butterfield of the University of Utah and his research group. (The experiments were developed through an NSF grant on carbon sequestration that is being co-led by Columbia University and AIChE.) By making carbonic acid and then calcium carbonate (i.e., chalk), the students learned how carbon dioxide can be fixated and, hence, removed from the atmosphere. The students were then asked to consider how to scale up the table-top experiments to a scale suitable to handle the annual carbon footprint of the average American.(At this point, Prof. Butterfield invoked his "5 elephant" rule, equating the annual carbon footprint to the weight of 5 elephants.)

The morning ended with the students hearing from 10 chemical engineering practitioners, ranging from current undergraduate and graduate students, through young professionals, to several very experienced "veterans." The panel did a great job of communicating the reasons why they became chemical engineers, as well as the ways that their current work continues to motivate and interest them. The students were impressed by the breadth of chemical engineering opportunities that were discussed, and asked many insightful follow-up questions.

Professor Tony Butterfield instructing the students

For the students who returned after lunch, the experience of observing the Chem-E-Car competition first hand left them with a palpable sense of the excitement that is chemical engineering, as the teams they had seen at the morning poster session raced their cars under the watchful eyes of hundreds of onlookers.

This event continues a trend, started last year, of conducting educational outreach activities as a part of every Spring and Annual Meeting. We hope to engage a broader cross-section of AIChE to participate in the coming years, and would welcome anyone interested in becoming a part of this effort. If interested, please send an email.