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Project-Based Learning in a First-Year Chemical Engineering Course

Charles J. Coronella and Scott A. Cooper. Chemical Engineering Dept., University of Nevada, Reno, Mailstop 170, Reno, NV 89557

The challenges of engaging first-year engineering students are well known. Many students come to an engineering curriculum poorly prepared and with substantial misunderstanding of what engineers actually do. Too frequently, recent high-school graduates are unprepared to make the commitment to do the hard work required to complete their degree in four years. Some students who might otherwise become successful engineers change their major to one that has more immediate appeal, is an easier pathway to graduation, or is taught by instructors who address the students' preferred learning styles directly.

At engineering colleges around the country, many inventive programs have recently begun to address these issues. Along with recognition that the traditional lecture-based format is far from ideal, many programs and departments have created innovative problem-based-learning first-year courses. The perception is that giving students the opportunity to design, build, and test a "widget" will engage them more fully, motivate them to study harder, make a more educated choice of major, and commit to the major. Students whose preferred learning style requires active, hands-on activity discover that engineering may suit them well, in contrast to what they may have concluded from lecture-based courses.

This paper is a report on one such effort at the University of Nevada, Reno, funded by the Hewlett Foundation. A new course has been developed in chemical engineering with a green-engineering theme, and uses a project as a vehicle to learn teamwork, to practice engineering design, measurements, and graphical data representation. We also address academic study skills and use Felder's Index of Learning Styles (ILS) to enable students to be aware explicitly of their own learning style.

The project is to design, build, and test an evaporative cooler, and is conducted in teams of 3 or 4 students, that endure for the semester. Assessment criteria include evaporative cooler performance, cost, safety, and style. Safety is given prominent focus repeatedly throughout the semester. Students learn how to use a psychrometric chart and apply it to rate the performance of their cooler. The nature of measurements is discussed. Teamwork skills, including problem solving, are addressed. Students practice engineering design in a formal manner, with several repetitions of design versus performance, safety audits, and cost playing important roles.

The project component of the class has been through two iterations, once in the summer of 2005, and again in the Fall of 2005, and the third iteration will occur in the Fall of 2006. Preliminary results suggest strong student buy-in to the project, with slightly increased student persistence. Disadvantages of the project include weather (geography), cost, and for some students, the discomfort of working with their hands for the first time. Finally, the nuts-and-bolts of designing from the ground up a problem-based learning course is quite time consuming.