(686e) Building Chemical Engineering Students from Miscellaneous Parts & Vague Instructions: A Hands-on First-Year Design Laboratory

Authors: 
Butterfield, A., University of Utah
Branch, K., University of Utah

Lab courses and open-ended problem solving offer benefits in conceptual learning and student satisfaction that are often underutilized early in our curriculum. Chemical engineering departments do not typically offer their first-year students a laboratory experience that is focused on core chemical engineering concepts and the design process. Instead, first-year laboratory courses primarily occur within chemistry and physics departments, and these courses do not typically exercise the type of creativity and innovation that attract many students to engineering. 

We created a freshman chemical engineering design course and laboratory, Chemical Engineering Design & Innovation, and have refined it over three semesters. This course is situated in the second semester of our curriculum, after a more traditional lecture-based introduction to chemical engineering course.

For each of the course projects, individual students first use browser-based simulations to familiarize themselves with the relevant theory and data analysis. They are then put into teams and given project design goals and access to a wide range of inexpensive materials and tools. Such a project may include the design and construction of a spectrophotometer and flow cell to be used to track a reaction, or of a photobioreactor designed to grow algae effectively. Students then validate their designs and compare their data to that predicted by theory. Students are trained on the use of Arduino microcontrollers and MATLAB to enable them to collect data from a variety of sensors. Students finish this course with a collaborative assignment on our seniors' final project, andthen a final project of their own design.

We have compiled results from pre- and post-tests and student surveys from this course. The data seems to indicate that this course has been greatly successfully in achieving its goals and has improved with each iteration. Students report remarkably high levels of satisfaction with the course compared to more traditional lecture-based courses, and indicate that it has helped them make social connections within the department.  The prototyping and data-analysis skills that students have gained early in the curriculum have also greatly increased the value of our freshmen to faculty research programs and those who hire our students as interns.

Topics: