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Can ChE Students Avoid School Daze?

Aug. 12, 2020
Online engineering education during the pandemic only can go so far

The wisdom of sending students into classrooms this semester remains contentious. Striking the best balance between returning to some semblance of normalcy and responding appropriately to health concerns stirs heated debate that often involves politics and socioeconomic issues. Universities are making hard choices — most often limiting in-person classes. But what does opting for online courses actually mean in terms of a chemical engineering education?

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To get a real-world perspective, I touched base with an educator I’ve known for a long time — R. Russell Rhinehart, emeritus professor in the school of chemical engineering at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma. He is one of those increasingly rare chemical engineering professors who spent time in industry (13 years) before pursuing an academic career. He regularly discusses the dichotomy between what schools teach and what companies require (see, for instance, “16 Things About Being an Engineer That They Don’t Teach at University,” and “R. Russell Rhinehart on Closing the Academic-Practice Gap”).

Here’s what he had to say:

“Some classes can be taught online without any problems. These are the ChE theory classes, with a traditional lecture followed by individual study, homework preparation, and tests that assess whether the students understand the fundamental lecture topics. It would be like traditional distant education... Although, many courses can be taught this way, the issue is tests. If students are in-class, the tests can be monitored. To maintain validity, my distance ed students had to go to a local school, church or government office to have a proctor that would ensure that test conditions are not violated...

“For the instructor, the diverse schedules, necessary to accommodate access and availability of proctors, is a nuisance. For example, you can’t release solutions until all students have submitted the materials.

“Students frequently need clarification or need help. For a mature student, an email exchange is all that is needed. But, for the newer students, the one-on-one help/coaching during office hours is essential. I don’t know how e-learning will fill the coaching/mentoring/advising/handholding that is often needed by 18–20-year-old novices.

“I also don’t know how we are going to handle the design or unit operations classes, the transition to practice classes. ABET [the engineering accreditation organization] requirements include team interaction and life preparation for working within community. ABET also requires laboratory experiences. In my opinion, the design and unit operations classes should be managed with significant real-time coaching about technology, engineering, life-skill, and approach to problems by the instructor. In my opinion, working on real equipment is essential to clarify the procedures, time, effort, safety, etc., that graduates should understand. I don’t see how e-classrooms can provide the necessary and minimally adequate design and lab experience.

“Maybe ABET and industry need to relax the criteria and expectations for engineering education until we can get back to in-person coaching.

“But of course, many schools don’t understand the need for active coaching by practice-oriented instructors... So, maybe all schools should just give up on preparing the engineering persona, revert to just the intellectual measures associated with engineering science, and let industry manage the training needed to give graduates a right perspective.”

What's your thinking about how to handle engineering education during the pandemic? 

MARK ROSENZWEIG is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can email him at [email protected]

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