Fall semester brings innovative courses to ChemE

Adam Dove

Jul 31, 2020

As Fall approaches, colleges and universities across the country are finalizing their plans for a new semester—one that’s shaping up to be unlike any semester before it. But where some may find the need to change their educational model quite nerve wracking, the faculty and staff in the Department of Chemical Engineering are more than used to tackling difficult problems. And just like any chemical engineering problem they may face in the lab, unanswered questions aren’t a cause for concern—they are an opportunity to innovate.

“It’s in times like these that we see innovation really flourish,” says Anne Skaja Robinson, Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering. “From an education standpoint, this is an opportunity to be creative. When we think of this challenge as an opportunity rather than just a difficulty, we invite innovation to help us not just return to business as usual, but to create an even brighter future.”

From hybrid teaching models to remote-controlled lab equipment to student mentoring programs, ChemE faculty are using the department’s strength in computation and tight-knit, supportive community to create an educational model that is not only safe for students, but provides them with real-world chemical engineering experience at every level of their education.

The whole department has really had to come together to make this transition happen.

Anne Skaja Robinson, Department Head, Chemical Engineering

Starting in the introductory course for Chemical Engineers, students will access their coursework through remote lectures, online homework assignments, and step-by-step tutorials. However, unlike the typical introductory course, this Fall semester, students will explore as a class the varied industrial fields that Chemical Engineers can pursue through specific modules that can be accessed and explored either in person or remotely.

Professor Kris Dahl has redesigned her typically energetic sophomore Thermodynamics course to be even more engaging for remote learning. Over the summer, she has been working with alumni and pre-recording experimental examples to highlight concepts from class—everything from industrial processes, to experiments using everyday items around the house. She will also incorporate self-designed cartoon characters, hand puppets, and a Magic 8 ball to add excitement and variety to the remote learning experience. 

Not only can students look forward to new and innovative class structures, but now, thanks to Professor Mike Domach and Lab Instructor Matt Cline, they will be able to gain valuable experience with modern laboratory equipment that will prepare them for industry like never before. Domach and Cline have prepared new experiments specifically designed to allow students in undergraduate lab classes to remotely operate equipment from anywhere in the world, just as they could if they were in the lab. The student teams, in either remote or hybrid learning modes, will be able to access the equipment’s computer interfaces while also observing operation via cameras from multiple angles. Staff will be present in the lab to help facilitate as needed and ensure safety at all times. In addition, they have expanded an existing partnership with OSISoft—a leading provider of cloud-based data storage, retrieval, and processing software for real-time systems in relevant industries—to enable students to analyze their data using many of the same tools they will encounter upon graduation.

"While distributed control systems are not at all new," says Cline, "young alumni are increasingly reporting that analysis of process data plays an important role in informing business decisions in the field. The platforms we are using now in the undergraduate lab were put in place a few years ago, but the present situation has nudged us to use their full capabilities."

Lab Instructor Matt Cline stands in front of remotely controlled laboratory equipment.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

Lab Instructor Matt Cline with the HX unit now capable of fully remote operation. The green screen is to aide in the production of prelab instructional videos.

Even the capstone design course in chemical engineering, Chemical Process Systems Design, taught by Ignacio Grossmann and Purdue University Professor Jeff Siirola, will feature a mix of remote lectures and in-person small group sessions, with students working in teams to perform project work and develop skills in simulation software. Students will also collaborate with Professor David Keith from Harvard University, and with the Swiss company Climeworks. The capstone design project, which will be conducted in groups of four, will challenge students to design an air capture systems that minimizes the cost of CO2 removal, a goal that companies like ExxonMobil are trying to achieve.

For his graduate-level course in Mathematical Modeling of Chemical Engineering Processes, Professor John Kitchin is using innovative computational methods to go fully remote. His new modality includes interactive computational notebooks with integrated self-assessment questions and exercises. The class will be taught in a new live lecture format that will be recorded, enabling asynchronous participation. This means that students in time-zones around the world will be able to fully participate and experience the class on their own schedule.

Likewise, Assistant Professor Zack Ulissi’s Reactive Chemical Systems course will operate in a fully remote synchronous format, using cloud-based python notebooks for instruction, which will allow students to follow along remotely during lecture. This new methodology was developed in close collaboration with the Carnegie Mellon's Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, which provides invaluable resources that support and promote student learning and performance, and will feature a semester-long computational kinetics group project to encourage team-building.

But it isn’t just the classroom experience that’s getting a makeover. To help promote a sense of community among students and increase the awareness of opportunities available within the major, the AIChE Student Chapter is organizing a new "AIChE Pals" program. Led by ChemE seniors Jeremy Tinucci and Isani Tripathy, the program pairs a first or second year student with a junior or senior Chemical Engineering major, who will act as a kind of mentor. The program will also create larger "family groupings" to promote interactions among new students in the major who may not yet have had the opportunity to establish their social network in ChemE.

With innovative class designs that take full advantage of our computational expertise, and a tight-knit, supportive community working together every step of the way, the Department of Chemical Engineering is ready to make the Fall semester an enriching experience unlike any other.

“The whole department has really had to come together to make this transition happen,” says Robinson. “A number of faculty have really stepped up, with everyone collaborating and sharing practices and help one another adapt. And that togetherness is the true strength of the Chemical Engineering Department.”