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Opinions on ChE education

By Chemical Engineering |

Last month, we ran a letter from reader, Jason Makansi, commenting on our June story, Chemical Engineering Education Evolution ( Chem. Eng., June 2012, pp. 22–25), which highlighted, among other things, the need for a more-meaningful connection between academia and industry. Makansi’s letter was passionate in itself, expressing frustration at the slow pace of progress over the past 30 years or more. Equally passionate was the response that Makansi’s letter has prompted from the rest of our readership. While each opinion differs somewhat with regard to a solution, it is safe to say that most practicing engineers agree that the typical ChE graduate has always lacked some basic practical skills.

In Makansi’s letter, he illustrates the central problem by explaining that when he graduated with his B.S.Ch.E., he did not know “which way to turn a valve, or, for that matter, anything else about an actual process plant.” Other readers, such as those whose letters appear on p. 6 of this issue, graduated with similar deficits in their practical know-how, with one admitting that “as a newly graduated engineer from a respected university, I didn’t even know what a pipe flange was.”

Of course, this is not the first time that the gap between academia and industry has been raised. Each one of you might have his or her own illustration to offer. I, myself, often lament that the main thing I recall from my process-control class is learning how to perform Laplace Transforms — a skill I never had the opportunity to retrieve in practice and probably never will.

The question is not whether graduates lack hands-on experience; the question is what should be done about it. For nearly 30 years, Makansi’s suggestion has been that engineering schools should offer two tracks — one for students likely to continue through graduate school and one for students who would be seeking jobs in industry.

Meanwhile, one reader, Roger E. Blanton, points out that adding any standalone practical-training courses would exacerbate the difficulty that most students find in completing their ChE degrees in four years. His suggestion is to make more use of summer internships.

Another reader, James S. Bloss, essentially makes the argument that nothing should be done about it. In his opinion, the chemical process industries are far too broad to incorporate enough hands-on specifics to make a significant difference, and core lessons in discipline and problem solving can go much farther.

In my opinion, all three readers make good points. Problem solving is indeed a foundational skill that can be applied across industries and functions. And, like other readers, I often wonder “whatever happened to co-ops?”, which used to be a common route for a ChE student bound for industry.

Like Makansi, though, I think that the education experience should be more tailored to the student’s professional goals. A twist on his two-track idea could be an applied-ChE degree option. Meanwhile, I, personally, do not object to longer, five-year programs. After all, I transferred from architecture, where that is an accepted state of affairs. Admittedly, however, not everyone embraces a five-year degree option. So, with that in mind, I think it is important to consider that practical learning does not necessarily mean more coursework. It is more of a distinction in the method of learning itself. If students had more opportunities to turn valves, see heat exchangers and work with actual process control systems, I would argue that absorption of the academic fundamentals would be more rapid in the first place.â– 

Rebekkah Marshall

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