- 9:00 AM

The Future of Chemical Engineering and Pedagogy: The Paradox of Irresistible Forces and Immovable Professors

Richard M. Felder, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-7905

Several modern trends call into question the effectiveness of how we prepare students to be chemical engineers. Thanks to globalization of the economy and incredibly rapid advances in technology, most things American engineers used to do will be done in the future by either engineers in developing countries or computers. Our graduates will consequently need a whole new range of skills (critical and creative thinking, entrepreneurship, self-directed learning, knowledge of other languages and cultures,...) to get and keep jobs. Traditional engineering education was not designed to equip students with those skills, and it does a lousy job of it. It also doesn't do well at equipping students with those other unfamiliar skills ABET says they'll need if we want to be accredited—ethics, lifelong learning, and so on.

On top of all that, many axioms accepted unquestioningly by traditional engineering professors just don't stand up to hard scrutiny. You know what they are: students learn something useful by watching professors derive equations...they won't learn if you let them cooperate on homework...you've got to drill them in the fundamentals of math and science for years before you can introduce them to engineering practice...and engineering practice equals engineering design, and you can teach the students everything they need to know about it in a one-semester capstone course, and it's not necessary or even desirable for those who teach it to have ever actually done it themselves...and it's also not necessary or desirable to teach professors anything about how to teach. Those beliefs, which have been at the heart of engineering education for at least half a century and in some cases much longer, are simply wrong!

What it comes down to is that the traditional way of teaching chemical engineering—mostly straight lectures, a couple of cookbook labs, individual homework, teaching math and pure science and engineering science for three or four years and putting a semester of design at the end, and having a faculty composed almost entirely of people who have neither practiced engineering nor received training in teaching—is both inferior at promoting learning and unsuitable to produce the types of graduates who will be needed in tomorrow's job market. It's not that we don't know how to do it better—we do. We have teaching methods that have been shown by solid research to lead to better learning than the old ways do for every conceivable learning outcome, and instructional development programs that can quickly help faculty members learn to use those methods. And yet—ABET notwithstanding—mainstream chemical engineering education still has both feet firmly planted in the late 1960s, except that our students have much larger and faster and more precise and expensive slide rules to solve the same equations we solved back then and much less understanding of what the solutions mean.

In this talk, we'll review the choices our academic community faces as professors and as a profession—the conflicts between traditional and alternative ways of designing curricula, teaching, hiring faculty members, and preparing them to teach—and make some predictions about how the conflicts are likely to be resolved.