This semester Professor Shelly Peyton of the Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department instituted a new, sophomore-level course that gives ChE majors the kind of hands-on experience in lab experimentation that is distinctive for this department or any other in the country. And Peyton believes this hands-on lab will have a long-lasting impact on the future careers of the students who take it.
As Peyton says, “We’ve been getting tons of feedback from our industrial board saying that was the number-one thing they were looking for in students for internships and even their starting jobs; it was how much hands-on experience they had.”
Until now most ChE students don’t get any hands-on experience in doing real-world chemical engineering until senior year. And, even then, the only students who get independent laboratory experimentation practice are those who either do a student internship with an outside company or who set up an extracurricular research project with an individual professor. Peyton’s course adds something new and different.
“That’s what sets this class apart from traditional chemistry labs, which are quite big and, due to safety and timing, the students are basically following a recipe,” says Peyton. “Here I’m giving them a lot more freedom and giving them a rough protocol and telling them the goals of what they’re trying to do. But then they design their conditions and their experiment and the way they’re going to be able to test their goal. It’s not only more creative, but they have to think very hard before and during the experiment to make sure they’re doing it the right way.”
In this case, informing students of the “right way” includes eight carefully conceived and supervised chemical engineering experiments throughout the semester, along with a weekly, 75-minute lecture giving students an overview of the experiments, and visits by four outside industrial speakers to talk about obtaining internships and what chemical engineers do in the real world.
Sophomore Mary Kummer used this hands-on course as the acid test for whether or not she even wanted to remain a chemical engineering major. “I took this class because I figured this was the test. If I liked it then I was in the right major, and if I hated it then chemical engineering was the wrong path. And I was happy to be able to figure this out in my sophomore year, since you usually don’t do these experiments until junior or senior year. I love the class!”
Transfer student Samantha Downs had a similar but slightly different motivation for taking Peyton’s class. “So this class allowed for a smooth transition to UMass and allowed me to meet a faculty member and make friends in my major,” she explains. “I was a chemistry major at my former college so this also allowed me to really get to know chemical engineering and the professional opportunities it offers.”
Because of the last-minute listing of the new course, only seven students, all women, signed up for it, but Peyton considered the small size an unintended benefit. “I think they ended up liking that it was going to be a very small class size,” says Peyton.
Bianca Edozie, the only senior in the class, agrees: “I really like the small class size and being able to do hands-on experiments in the area of chemical engineering.”
The experiments began by employing some of chemical engineering’s basic tools. The students learned how to use pipettes or droppers, a laboratory tool commonly used to transport a measured volume of liquid, often as a media dispenser. Then they learned how to do the all-important statistical data analysis that is intrinsic to quantifying every experiment.
Next were two additional basics: designing materials and designing efficient experiments to test them. “They learned how to make some materials and study potential drug delivery from those materials,” explains Peyton. “And they also learned some design of experiments, like how to do the minimum number of experiments to determine how variables affected your outcome.”
Next the students designed and made some soft rubbery materials and then looked at the extension of those materials under load. “That was a fun experiment because they got to design their molds with CAD software and they 3D-printed their molds over in the library in the MakerBot Lab,” says Peyton. “They then polymerized their materials in these molds and did their own mechanical testing. So they really performed the whole process from start to finish.”
Another experiment had to do with pumps. As Peyton notes, “So this is a real chemical engineering industrial application in which they examined the strength of pumps and how well these small pumps can pump viscous fluids. They measured the viscosity of the fluids and then tested their pumping ability.”
The final experiment was doing an exothermal runaway reaction. “Exothermal means it’s giving off an awful lot of heat,” explains Peyton. “Heat also speeds up the reaction, and so you end up getting this runaway that is self-perpetuating. It’s perfectly safe because when it boils it releases its heat and crashes. We also have an ice bath under the reaction for safety. But they see the potential danger issue with scaling up exothermal reactions.”
How will this new curriculum make a difference in the lives of students? “The two things that industry will see on their resumes and be impressed by are statistical analysis of data, which they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and design of experiments, which industry uses all over the place,” comments Peyton. “Very few curricula anywhere even teach design of experiments. But the biggest thing they’re going to be able to bring is that they actually designed and performed experiments in the lab independently.”
Student Mikayla White agrees wholeheartedly with this assessment. “My entire resume right now is based on experiences in this class. You always hear, ‘you’ll get a chance to do that eventually.’ Well, no more, this class is the hands-on experience I wanted.” White’s classmate Jackie Flynn concurs: “I like the hands-on projects and the chance to build my resume and find an internship.”
As Peyton sums up the extreme benefits of taking the new course, “These women who are taking this new course are both lucky and privileged and also guinea pigs, all at the same time.” (December 2018)