Rethinking the Chemical Engineering Curriculum

In the last post, I proposed a definition of what I believe Chemical Engineering to be: manipulating matter by managing energy.  It has generated some comments, with most of the disagreements either trying to embellish the definition to include jargon, or saying that the definition was not broad enough.  An interesting thing about definitions – the more words it takes to define a thing, the more restrictive the definition becomes.

In the previous piece, I described how the various courses fit into the spirit of the overall definition, without showing how the various courses interact with one another.  One thing that bothers me is that we, as a society, discuss the need for more STEM majors to remain competitive as a nation.  STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and while one may quibble with the implied hierarchy from the order, it does appear that these are the “hard skills” that many college bound youth seem to avoid, because as Barbie once said “Math is hard”.

It is increasingly difficult to fail to see that people with BS degrees in Engineering, if they are lucky enough to find jobs, will significantly out earn almost every other BS or BA degree.  Of course this is due primarily to the law of Supply and Demand – if the demand for a specific major exceeds the supply, salaries will be higher than if there is a higher supply of a specific major than the demand.  This is as true for a group of Communications majors as it is for mulch.  This is not to compare the utility of a BA in Communications to the utility of mulch, but I will allow others to make that judgment.

One cannot hope to become an Engineer without a solid foundation in mathematics.  In fact, since almost all engineering theory is based on calculus, it would be impossible to survive the undergraduate curriculum.  While Chemical Engineering is manipulating matter by managing energy, it is the role of mathematics that ties these two concepts together.

In the Venn diagram below, I have tried to show how the basic Chem E curriculum ties matter, energy, and math together.  The diagram is based on my recollections of the curriculum as it was about 30 years ago; I do not know how much this picture has changed, if at all.  Basically, the further away from the center a subject is placed, the more theoretical.  Subjects are also placed according to my perception of how they strike the balance between matter, energy, and math.  For  example, Physics is far away from the center (very theoretical), but close to the Energy/Mathematics boundary; Mass Transfer is within the Matter/Mathematics zone, but closer to the center, indicating its practical content for designing equipment.  Of course, your mileage may vary, and I would like to hear suggestions as to how to make the placements more in line with a general perception.


There are two anomalies that do not fit the Theoretical vs. Practical model: Process Control and Reactor Design.  Both of these courses have the potential to be very practical courses, and I view these as a huge opportunity wasted.

 My recollection of Process Control was that it was almost totally theoretical, but not on the abstract level of pure mathematics.  If I had to guess, it is still taught that way today – students work with Laplace Transforms, trying to develop a mathematical description of a unit operation, inverting the transfer function, and graphing the response.  All theoretical and complete nonsense based on how actual design professional and plant process engineers actually design and specify control systems.  In my opinion, time would be better spent on actually discussing the pros and cons of various instruments, selection, symbology on a P&ID, and field installation.

Reactor Design is a more difficult question.  Students were/are taught about residence time distribution theory (highly math based), how to couple that with reactions kinetics, and managing the endo- or exothermic nature of the reaction.  In some instances they discuss catalysis, again focusing on the mass and heat transport equations.  All vey theoretical because we are taught that theory rules everything.  So the course has a very intensive practical component, but it is taught in almost a purely theoretical manner because the math is beautiful (well, it is, but that is not the point).

 Why not teach students about what passes in industry for the venerable old CSTR?  In industry, there are more types of reactors that behave as CSTRs than the plain vanilla stirred tank.  How about loop reactors, fluid bed reactors, forced recycle evaporators, etc?  Give students a glimpse as to what they may actually find in the real world.

What is Chemical Engineering?

Recently, one of my nephews asked me what Chemical Engineering was.  I told him the usual story that Chemical Engineer was the profession that made the stuff that runs the modern world.  While that may be true in that we are in most of the remaining major heavy industries (think refining – including biorefining – as well as oil/gas and chemicals) in America, there is something more fundamental that got me to thinking about Chemical Engineering education.

Something tends to get lost in the academic world.  Academic work lays the foundation as to the things that Chemical Engineers do, but almost entirely focuses on the theoretical.  We have educated a whole generation of engineers who believe that one can calculate anything, and the math is reality.  What a shock it must be to the new grad during his (or her) first job that not everything can be broken down into equations, and many simplifying assumptions must be made.

Theory is important – it is important to know why things are supposed to work, but it is equally (if not more) important to be able to reduce the theory to practice.  Sadly, these are things that are generally taught in schools, one must learn them in the actual practice of one’s chosen profession.

But, back to the main topic – What is Chemical Engineering?  After much thought and pondering, I would propose a simple definition:

Chemical Engineering is the manipulation of matter by managing energy.

 While the above statement may appear to put Chemical Engineers above other engineering disciplines, that is not my intent.  Other types of engineers tend to focus on the energy side with matter being used as a means to their ends.  For example, a Mechanical Engineer may be an expert in heat transfer equipment, but he uses materials of construction and heat transfer media to effectively manage that energy.  However, the matter is not changed, except perhaps by phase change from vapor to liquid or vice-versa.  Other examples will become apparent with some thoughtful consideration.

 The proposed definition looks at both matter and energy.  During the undergraduate career, the first two years are mainly used to fill the toolbox – basic physics, chemistry, and mathematics are the typical grind.  There are a few courses that begin to get in to the specifics of the chosen major, but those generally do not happen until typically late sophomore year.  Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics are the foundation of all that is to follow.  These courses teach the fundamental rules of how the engineer’s universe operates.  Physics is about energy, Chemistry is about matter; Mathematics ties the two together.

 Chemical Engineers usually take a course we refer to as “Heat and Mass Balances 101”; a first attempt to tie Physics and Energy together.  It is typically not taught that way.  The course reinforces the concept of the laws of energy and mass conservation in terms of black boxes.  Make the balances work, and you get an “A”.

 The transport trilogy – Fluid Mechanics, Heat Transfer, and Mass Transfer – are tools to assist you in moving bulk matter from point A to B, managing energy transport, and moving mass on the molecular level between streams or phases.  These courses are the basis for equipment design – pumps and compressors, heat exchangers, and separations equipment.  Machines for manipulating matter by managing energy.

 Thermodynamics, the basic course all engineers take is an extension of the chapter out of the physics book.  Carnot cycles, heat pumps, enthalpy and entropy are poorly explained in dry detail by professors who really could not care less about the subject (I remember one professor who wanted to do such a bad job of teaching the course he would not be saddled with it again).  But Thermo is the first true energy management course one encounters.

 Similarly, Organic Chemistry was the first matter manipulation course a Chemical Engineer is exposed to.  Unfortunately, the course is taught by a Chemistry professor generally to Chemistry students, and unless you are really lucky, is simply a course of rote memorization, remembering reaction names and obscure reaction mechanisms but never with a larger goal in mind.  After you learn it, you quickly forget most of it if you are not majoring in Chemistry.

 Chemical Engineering (Equilibrium) Thermodynamics gets to the raison d’être of Chemical Engineering.  It even has “Chemical Engineering” in its name.  This subject is all about how to manipulate matter by managing energy.  Granted, the matter manipulation is manipulating the state of matter (liquid to vapor and vice-versa) and its composition, by managing the application of energy sources.

 Physical Chemistry is another melding of Physics and Chemistry, but the focus is more on matter manipulation – it is the first true exposure to reaction rates and further builds on equilibrium thermodynamics.  Here, we learn the molecular mechanisms of how matter is transformed through chemical reaction and what role energy plays in the transformation.

 Process Control as is currently taught is an anachronism.  Using Laplace transforms to model a system and using theory to tune controllers is something I have not seen done in 25 years of professional practice.  Students would be far better served by learning about the basics of sensor technology and how control valves work, not to mention how typical control loops are designed in the real world.

 Probably the best example of synthesis of the definition is the course involving Chemical Reactor Design.  In this field, you need to meld Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics, Physical Chemistry, Fluid Mechanics, Heat Transfer, and Mass Transfer.  In addition, you are introduced to Residence time Distribution (Mixing) theory and forced to integrate all of these disciplines into one unified whole.

 It is the ultimate embodiment of the phrase “Chemical Engineering is the manipulation of matter by managing energy”.

A Tale of Two Recruiters

Recruiters reach out to me 2-4 times a week either via e-mail or phone.  I make it a point to respond to their e-mails or take their calls because you never know what opportunity is knocking.  Most times, the position is not of interest to me.  Sometimes the position is: a) too junior a level, b) requires significant relocation, c) not a good fit, d) not interested in the company for a variety of reasons (corporate culture or demonstrated ethics primary among them), and e) other.

If the position is not for me, I will try to refer someone who may be a better fit, or someone I know is looking for a new (or any opportunity).  I only refer people I can vouch for, because it is my reputation on the line.  Similarly, I keep any confidential information the recruiter has shared with me confidential (such as the potential employer’s name) because I believe it is unethical to do an “end around” the recruiter.  I am not a recruiter, nor do I desire to be one.  If a recruiter offers a “referral fee” I will gladly accept, but I make no demands for such an arrangement.

 As the title of this post implies, I was recently contacted by two recruiters with opportunities for me.  As the man says “the names have been changed to protect the innocent”.  Let’s call them “A” and “B”.  Recruiter A contacted me first and is in the HR department of what is a Fortune 500 company which used to be listed as one of the DJIA 30.  Recruiter “B” is the owner of a small company.  Both recruiters found me through LinkedIn.

 A sends me a message through LinkedIn:


I came across your impressive background through LinkedIn and would be interested in talking with you about a Process Operations Technician opportunity in [REDACTED]. I would love to connect with you to see if you or anyone in your network might be interested in a position within [REDACTED]. Please let me know if you’re available to discuss; thanks for your time.

A few days later, I get a message from B:

Hi Keith,

I hope this message finds you well. I am doing a search for a Site Manager, to manage 4 people at a customer site in the greater [REDACTED] area. This will have great visibility within a multi-billion dollar organization. There will be limited travel, but work onsite with the customer to integration chemical solutions with a Fortune 100 company. This is a newly created position, due to growth in business. This is person will be the “face” to the customer and really help forge a strong relationship with them. Let me know if you OR anyone that you know would be intersted in this growth opportunity.


Note that I have removed identifying information as to the location (local to me) and company.  It should also be noted that these opportunities were with different companies.  Both messages are quite similar in tone, and I responded to both “A” and “B” that I would be happy to discuss these opportunities with them.  Reading the messages, it sounded as if I were overqualified for either position, but since I do work with Senior level students at UB, I could give either of these recruiters more appropriate leads.

This is where the stories diverge.

It was the best of times

I received a call from B’s office; his associate is filling me in on the details.  It soon becomes clear that the position “Site Manager” is a position where what is managed is the inventory and usage of hiring company’s materials on a customer’s site.  Some technicians report to this position.  After a few minutes, I am told the proposed pay range and learn it is close to what I was making 10-15 years ago, and the position requires a BS level Chem E with 5-10 years experience.  After learning that the associate had not checked my profile, she agreed that my background and experience made me somewhat overqualified.  I offered that I could possibly refer some people, if she sent me her contact information and the position description.  I received the information and passed it on to a younger engineer whom I think would be a good fit.  I also notified the recruiter that I had forwarded the information.

It was the worst of times

I never heard back from A.  Well, not exactly.  A few days after the initial LinkedIn contact, I received an e-mail from the corporate recruiting computer:


 Dear Keith,

Thank you for recently applying to the position of  Process Operations Technician in [REDACTED].  In order to be considered for the position further, we need to collect some additional information from you regarding your background and experience.  Please [LINK REDACTED] to return to the website to finish your profile and assessment. If you have any problems during the application process, please contact us at [REDACTED].

 We appreciate your interest in [REDACTED] as a potential employer.


[REDACTED] Acquisition Team

This was quite a surprise to me.  I never spoke to A to gauge whether or not I was interested in the position.  Even if I were, I would not have applied through a “recruiting computer”; it is my policy to end any conversation when one of the steps is to apply through a company website.  I followed the link and had to answer a number of questions (and upload a resume – which I did not do – instead leaving a message that I did not know what I was applying for), declined to take a pre-employment physical and drug test, and made an outrageous (for them) salary demand, before I could look at the position description, which was clearly for an entry level job.

I have managed to contact A’s company; they assure they will remove my record from their database.  In addition, I have sent a strongly worded – but polite – reply to A demanding an apology.  If none is forthcoming, I may have to actually contact the company’s HR department and set up a phone conference to get satisfaction.

And maybe name names here.

To All New (Or Soon To Be) Graduates

Congratulations on your impending graduation.  It is certainly an achievement you should take pride in.

Please note that I am not in a position to hire any staff for the forseeable future.  However, I would suggest that you try to find a suitable position with one of the larger design firms such as Jacobs or Fluor.

The reason I suggest large engineering houses is the new reality of project engineering.  In the past, all the major chemical companies had their in-house design firms.  That was then, this is now.  Most of the large companies use their R&D people to develop the process and leave the “heavy lifting” of design and construction to outside contractors.  They do this to limit their liability and to focus on their core business – chemical manufacture.

At such a firm, you will gain valuable insight as to how engineering happens – the concept of the process, the specification of the process vessels and instruments, the piping design and layout.  Just because you have attained a significant academic degree, you need to understand your limitations and minimal real world experience.  You will probably be working with people who have been doing the art of process design for 20 or more years; take the opportunity to learn from them.  Not all engineering knowledge resides in books.

You should work to understand the actual practice of Engineering.  Engineering is everything from the big picture to the tiny details – and the details are what costs real money to either the client or your firm.  Every decision has consequences and you need to think these through before you settle on a course of action.  Over time, and with experience, those decisions will become easier to make but do not fall into the trap that all decisions are easy to make.

Ultimately, you should strive to obtain your Professional Engineering license (PE, PEng in Canada, Chartered Engineer in the UK).  In the long run it will open you up to new opportunities and show clients that you are serious about what you do.

It can be a long and profitable career, but it will take years of hard work and effort.  Remember that even though you are about to graduate, in 5 years you will be the person that the new grads will consider “over the hill”.

So I wish you the best of luck in your carer.

Pennsylvania in March

We are gearing up for our visits to Pittsburgh on 10-11 March and Philadelphia on 31 March-1 April.  Response so far has been encouraging.

Springhill Suites at the Pittsburgh Mills Mall is our location for Pittsburgh.  We have 4 courses on the schedule:

We will again be at the Villanova Conference Center in Radnor, PA (near Philadelphia).  We are offering a wide variety of courses over the two days:

Because some of our instructors are outside contractors, we ask that you sign up early for the Philadelphia dates.

I hope to hear from you soon and see you there!

Economic Update

Sorry for the time between posts.  We are starting to see some thawing in the job market for engineers, and generally for higher experience levels.  LinkedIn, as well as other sites have numerous postings looking for qualified individuals in the US and around the world.  So perhaps there is hope.

Now for a few minor points for recruiters and job seekers.  These are my pet peeves, and your mileage may vary.  Take the following with a grain of salt.


  • On LinkedIn, a post that is titled “I’m Hiring” is a waste of time.  I personally don’t look at them anymore.  If you are interested in attracting candidates, spell out at least the position description and discipline.  If you can’t be bothered to tell me what you are selling, I can’t be bothered to look.
  • Also, a location, either state or region goes a long way towards getting interest.  Yes, some people may be desperate for any job, but why not tell people where it is located.  Unless you’re trying to hide something.
  • How about putting any special requirements for residency?  Those of us in the US automatically assume that you need valid permission to work in the US to apply.  Some jobs require US citizenship (security concerns).  One posting months ago for a position in Saudi Arabia was aimed at men only.  One woman thought that was outright sexist (it was) and posted her thoughts to the thread.  She removed it after I sent her a note explaining that women were not allowed to work in Saudi Arabia.
  • It may be helpful for recruiters to allow private messages (the “Reply Privately” option).  I cannot tell you how many times I did not reply to postings because the recruiter does not accept private messages.


  • Especially on LinkedIn, you should watch your responses to job postings.  If you are out of work, that is one thing, but if you are already employed and looking to change, think before you post!  I’ll bet some of your connections are coworkers, and that could lead to unpleasant conversations, especially with superiors.
  • Don’t be desperate.  Recruiters and potential employers can sense desperation as well as a shark can sense blood in the water.  Don’t apply for everything; a little selectivity goes a long way.  Face it, the more things you apply for, the more times you’ll be rejected.  If you are looking to get your dreams crushed on a regular basis, by all means apply for every job that is out there.
  • Give the recruiter time to do their job.  Just because you sent a resume yesterday, don’t assume you are at the top of the TODO list.  Everything has a residence time.  Some people do not check their e-mail every 2 minutes.  This goes for the recruiter and the hiring manager.  Give any contact a week.  Follow up with an e-mail first.  Do not pester the recruiter; that will not win you any points.
  • One hint for those looking for opportunities in the US: in general, if you don’t have a right to work in the US (i.e., citizen, green card, visa, etc.) assume that you will not be considered so don’t bother to apply.

Good luck in your search.

Update (4 Feb 11):

A reader makes the following good points:

If you qualify for 80% of the job posting, don’t apply. With the number of people that are searching for jobs, 80% isn’t enough to get your foot in the door. If you’re at 95+% of the posting and what you’re missing is something minor go ahead.

A reminder to seekers about timing is that with the advent of internet posting, anyone who posts a job is going to get flooded with resumes. The bulk of them will not meet the qualifications for the job but still need to be gone through by the recruiter/HR to identify the candidates. I’d even say that a week may be too early but contact should be made within two weeks.

Both excellent tips for job seekers.


Technology seminars, that is.  We are happy to announce our two 2-day seminars on agitator design.

First, Agitator Design Principles for Biofuels is aimed towards people who must specify, purchase or optimize fluid agitation equipment used for Biofuel applications. Such applications include, for example, simple tanks containing solutions, broth and slurry tanks, compounding tanks and fermenters/bioreactors. The application technology ranges from simple to complex. A basic Introduction to general agitator design principles is given, but the focus is specifically on applications found in the Biofuels Industries.  This 12 course will be offered on May 5-6, 2011 in Cincinnati, OH and on June 27-28, 2011 in Buffalo, NY for $495.  A full course agenda can be found here.

Second, Agitator Design Principles for Bioprocessing and Pharmaceutical Applications is targeted towards people who must specify, operate, purchase or optimize fluid agitation equipment used for Bioprocessing and Pharmaceutical applications. Such applications include, for example, simple tanks containing CIP solutions, broth and slurry tanks, compounding tanks and fermenters/bioreactors. The application technology ranges from simple to complex, and the construction methods range from standard to highly sanitary. A basic Introduction to general agitator design principles is given, but the focus is specifically on applications found in the Pharmaceutical Bioprocessing Industries.  This 13 PDH course will be offered March 31-April 1, 2011 in Philadelphia, PA for $495.  A full course agenda can be found here.

Both courses are taught by Greg T. Benz, of Benz Technology International, Inc.