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”.

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.

A Late Addition

We are pleased to add one late edition to our offerings, Process Plant Capital Cost Estimating, an 8 PDH course directed to those individuals that are involved in project management, process evaluation and design, capital cost estimation for process plant projects and other users of engineering cost data.

Process Plant Capital Cost Estimating is taught by Mr. Kevin M. Green and is offered on the following dates:

  • Buffalo, NY on January 7 and June 20, 2011 (also available as a live webinar)
  • Binghamton, NY on January 28, 2011
  • Philadelphia, PA on April 1, 2011
  • Albany, NY on June 3, 2011

We hope to see you soon.

Two New Additions

We are pleased to announce two more NEW 8 PDH courses for 2011.

First, Effective Engineering Project Management Skills will guide the student through a step-by-step process of analyzing how best to manage a project.  Learning how to best implement project management practices will enable you to improve your project outcomes and allow you to manage your projects and other responsibilities at the same time.

Effective Engineering Project Management Skills is taught by Ms. P. Anne Gaspar is offered on the following dates:

  • Buffalo, NY on January 4 and June 9, 2011 (also available as a live webinar)
  • Binghamton, NY on January 27, 2011
  • Pittsburgh, PA on March 10, 2011
  • Philadelphia, PA on March 31, 2011
  • Syracuse, NY on April 14, 2011
  • Albany, NY on June 2, 2011

Second, Implementing an ISO 14001 Environmental Management System is intended to provide a general introduction and an understanding of the requirements and the approach to developing an ISO 14001 environmental EMS for an organization.

Implementing an ISO 14001 Environmental Management System is taught by Ms. P Anne Gaspar is offered on the following dates:

  • Buffalo, NY on January 10 and June 14, 2011 (also available as a live webinar)
  • Binghamton, NY on January 28, 2011
  • Pittsburgh, PA on March 11, 2011
  • Philadelphia, PA on April 1, 2011
  • Syracuse, NY on April 15, 2011
  • Albany, NY on June 3, 2011

 We hope to see you soon.

Our Green Initiative

Our green initiative is twofold – to save us some green and to potentially put some green in your pocket.

Let me explain.  Printing and mailing is a very expensive proposition; e-mail is much more cost effective.  So to help save us on some printing and mailing costs, I am starting a little contest.  The Grand Prize is $280 worth of PDH – that’s a full 8-hour course or four 2-PDH webinars (your choice).  There will be up to SIX prizes of  $70 worth of PDH – either a FREE 2-PDH webinar or a $70 credit towards the purchase of an 8 PDH course (again, your choice).  I say up to six because if only 4 people enter, I can only award the grand prize and 3 of the other prizes.

So how does one enter?  Simple.

1) Between now and 31 March 2011, when you join our e-mail list (free), you will be entered for the drawing.

2) If you purchase a course from us, that counts also.

3) Refer a friend – have then drop us a note at info AT aurora-analytics DOT com and mention your name (and e-mail) then both of you are entered.

Please no-emails in the comments below, because you just know that you’ll get spammed by the spambots.  And you can be sure that we won’t sell your e-mail. 

I know times are tough, so please only one entry per person.

I’ll even enter people who bought a course since 1 Nov 2010.

Because that’s the kind of guy I am.

New Course Offerings for 2011

We are happy to announce 2 new 8 PDH seminars for 2011.

First, Basics of Filtration covers the important aspects filtration theory including important characteristics and properties of fluids and solids in filtration and testing procedures and scale up.  In addition, there is an introduction to filtration equipment, covering design, uses, and selection of equipment based on continuous and batch filtration applications.  Different types of filter media are reviewed, along with ancillary equipment and a discussion of filtration process control.

Basics of Filtration, taught by Mr. Green, is offered on the following dates

  • Buffalo, NY on January 3 and June 16 (also available as a live webinar)
  • Binghamton, NY on January 27
  • Cleveland, OH on February 18
  • Philadelphia, PA on March 31
  • Albany NY on June 2

Next, we are pleased to announce Solvent Removal from Solids.  This course is taught by Mr. Joe Bonem and covers the mass transfer and equilibrium considerations when stripping volatile solvents from solids, including polymer-solvent systems.  The removal of solvent from solids (polymers, films, construction materials, mine tailings, etc.) is a vital step of many manufacturing processes. However, it is often not well understood. This lack of understanding has caused some to conclude that all that is required to remove the solvent is to increase the solid’s temperature to the boiling point of the solvent. This is erroneous when either or both equilibrium and kinetics are considered.

Solvent Removal from Solids is offered on the following dates (all dates 2011):

  • Cleveland, OH on February 18
  • Phailadelphia, PA on March 31
  • Buffalo, NY on June 23 (also available as a live webinar)

In addition, we are bringing back our courses on Optimization Strategies and Gasification of Coal and Biomass.  The schedules for these courses are:

Optimization Strategies:

  • Buffalo, NY on  January20 and June 3 (also available as a live webinar)
  • Cleveland, OH on February 17
  • Pittsburgh, PA on March 11
  • Philadelphia, PA on April 1

Gasification of Coal and Biomass:

  • Cleveland, OH on February 17
  • Philadelphia, PA on April 1
  • Buffalo, NY on June 21 (also available as a live webinar)

Keep watching this space for additional courses!