Class Notes: Are Chemical Engineering Students Prepared?

Oct. 31, 2019
James Crews

James Crews is a chemical engineering student at Carnegie Mellon University. He's also a music major and a mean frisbee player.

It’s been a few years since I sat in a classroom preparing for my future. I remember being overwhelmed and insecure -- the way most, if not all, college students feel. Certainly, college can’t teach kids everything they will need to excel in their chosen professions. Only time and experience can do that.

Indeed, “Most graduates leave their universities with a thorough backgrounding in the fundamental principles of chemical engineering — but without much, if any, idea of how chemical plants actually operate,” according to Chemical Processing’s Editor Mark Rosenzweig in his column “Young Engineers Need Our Help.”

Rosenzweig's solution is a “boot camp” approach.

“I can see real value in a group of operating companies getting together to help their new hires learn about the equipment and systems they’ll encounter. Educate them about the different types of pumps and their appropriate applications — likewise for valves, heat exchangers and other process equipment. Provide an orientation to utility systems such as steam and cooling water.”

I spoke with James Crews, a sophomore chemical engineering student at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), and queried him on his curriculum and his feel for the future. He’s a dual major -- his second area of interest is music.

“I like to pitch it as they're both creative applications of fundamental theory,” says Crews. “You take chemistry and you apply it in the real world to solve problems and you've got chemical engineering. With music theory, you apply that and you have music composition.”

While Crews may not know it yet, he is starting to see the point Rosenzweig is making. He was telling me about a Chemical Engineering Seminar class he is taking. It’s once a week and there is no homework -- it’s just different guest speakers from various companies.

“Representatives come into class and talk about what they specifically do and what the job openings that they have would entail,” says Crews. “A lot of them have told us things like taking thermodynamics is important but you're not going to use it that much in the industry.” He notes that his professor cringes a little each time.

In terms of how his family and friends react to his chosen field of study, “A lot of people ask me, ‘Oh, so you're going into oil and gas then?’ Like that's the only career that you can have out of chem E.”

But what attracted Crews to the field was the ability to make a positive impact. His dream job would be in clean energy and he hopes to land an internship this summer at a company that is working on long-term energy storage.

As for truly preparing for a career, “Capturing knowledge that seasoned staff take for granted and transferring it effectively to new hires and inexperienced personnel remain urgent and ongoing challenges for the chemical industry,” according to Seán Ottewell, Chemical Processing’s Editor at Large. His article, “Knowledge Transfer: Plants Seek The Right Recipe For Seasoning,” notes that advances in technology and training are simplifying the tasks and boosting success at several companies.

According to Crews, the curriculum at CMU focuses pretty heavily on optimization, controls and operations. “I think it’s pretty reflective of how we’ll be working after graduation.”

Time and experience will flesh it out with the help of mentors, I’m sure. I will continue to keep tabs on Crews throughout his studies, internships and future jobs to see if he agrees with what our editors have pointed out in the pages of Chemical Processing.

And if you know a chemical engineering student who’d like to share their experiences, tell them to email me at [email protected].


Universities Out Of Touch
Universities simply don't have the ability to renew themselves fast enough. Take for example ExxonMobil's IJH "It Just Happens" initiative, which has resulted in smart junction boxes in chemical plants over the past five years. How many students that have graduated over the last three years have seen such a box before entering the workforce? My guess is very few. I think this is why professional bodies like the Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) and many others require industrial experience before you can register as a professional engineer. The first years of your career you are a professional engineer in-training. Naturally, if that training could be facilitated by a group of companies, and not just your own employer, it would improve the training on the job.

Niels Jenesn

Seeking More Substance
Hello Traci, I read your article on the subject, I would say NO (not prepared). I'm a third year student from Kyambogo University - Uganda.

It's pretty difficult getting a wholesome education in our field this side and the alumni tell me "about 75% what is taught in class is not applied in the industry out there."

I interned from a sugar processing plant and it was a whole different experience. I noted that the public lectures and seminars offered at campus were actually far less effective in preparing a Chem E student.

I think there should a stronger link between universities and the industries. I feel there's more that the industries can offer beyond just sending officials to speak in seminars about the field.

New processes and systems, equipment designs and applications are used. I would advise that industries should be utilized in designing the Chem E curriculum, more especially with the process design and application disciplines. The boot camp idea is also a very good idea.

Most students are taught the fundamental theory but less than 5% creative application (this even makes the course less interesting), so they leave very unprepared for the industry.

It's ironic to say that I learned more during my internship than while in class, but it's true. Plus, it was much more interesting.

Silas Katuhamye
Kyambogo University, Uganda

New To The Industry
I’m a relatively new chemical engineer to industry (≈2.5 yrs) and always checking out the Chemical Processing articles. I came across your article, Class Notes: Are Chemical Engineering Students Prepared?, today and I wanted to say that it very much resonated with me. I came out of school with knowledge of chemical engineering theory but with a real lack of understanding about how those principles actually related to manufacturing. As a result, I’ve spent countless hours trying to understand different types of valves, pumps, utility systems, elements of process control, thermodynamics, etc. I have wanted to help combat this - what I think is a real gap in the chemical engineering curriculum – but haven’t been sure how to especially as I am continuing to learn.

If you ever know of anything or anyone that can provide an opportunity to help with this via Chemical Processing – whether it be something similar to what Mark Rosenzweig had mentioned or something else – please feel free to reach out as I would very much like keep future engineers from having to learn on their own the same things that I did. Also, thanks for always providing great content!

Andrew Ferguson
Research Engineer – VMS

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor. She fondly remembers her first internship at the Cleveland Metroparks’ publication “Around the Emerald Necklace.” It wasn’t a paying gig but the main office was at the Cleveland Zoo so she got to hang out with lemurs and monkeys on her lunch break. You can email her at [email protected].

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