Curriculum change isn’t enough

Chemical engineering students deserve better teachers, according to Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief Mark Rosenzweig.

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

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As this month’s cover story (The Ch in ChE stands for "Changing") points out, chemical engineering education is evolving. The traditional unit-operations approach is going more and more out of favor. That’s not surprising given all the changes in our understanding and application of the underlying science since unit ops first was adopted decades ago.

If a different approach to teaching the fundamentals helps students to better understand the scale and scope of contemporary chemical engineering, we should embrace it. After all, optimizing training of the next generation of ChEs bolsters the long-term prospects of the profession.

Industry leaders are playing an active role in efforts to recast the curriculum, as well they should. Granted an undergraduate engineering education has always been primarily about providing the essential, fundamental underpinnings, not tailoring teaching to a specific career, like a trade school does — and should remain so. However, understanding what technical and other skills companies now value and appreciating what graduates actually may do  — especially considering the far broader range of industries now employing chemical engineers — provides an important context for revamping the approach to education.

A curriculum more in tune with the times is only one element of an improved education for chemical engineers, though — and the easiest part to achieve. We also need to address another glaring current shortcoming — the actual teaching of the coursework.

Students rightly complain about classes taught by graduate students with minimal teaching skills and, too often, limited English proficiency. That is a problem. However, replacing the grad students with faculty isn’t the solution. Putting aside staffing and economic issues that hamper such a move, we must face the reality that too many academics aren’t ideal teachers. And I’m not just talking about their skills in teaching and engaging students.

The engineering educational establishment has cultivated a culture in which the typical career path today for faculty is to get a doctorate and then go directly into academia. This means that too many classes are taught by professors without any real industrial experience. Students lose when professors don’t know what’s involved in the real-world application of chemical engineering principles.

Some schools do say that they are desperate to get staff with industrial experience and point to their adjunct professors as the solution. These adjunct professors, often with long and distinguished corporate careers, generally are entrusted to teach only a few design and other courses. And, too often, they are treated as second-class citizens by others in the department — because they have sullied themselves with the nitty-gritty application of chemical engineering in industry.

This reflects an unfortunate underlying attitude of too many faculty. Their motivation for an academic career is to do “pure” research — science for the sake of science. Teaching is a necessary evil, to be minimized, and addressing real industrial issues in research is a distraction to be avoided unless required by the quest for funding.

Improving the chemical engineering curriculum certainly makes sense. But unless and until universities really confront their approach to faculty, undergraduates will continue to leave the schools with a less-than-optimum education.

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