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A Degree-Project Approach to Engineering Education

C. Ted Lee Jr., Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-1211 and Gisele Ragusa, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089.

Chemical engineering education is facing a growing disconnect between a curriculum focused primarily on "unit operations" (e.g., heat exchangers and distillation columns) and faculty research that has increasingly emphasized nano- and bio-technology. This discrepancy was recognized by an NSF-sponsored Frontiers in Chemical Engineering Education initiative, recommending a move from the macroscopic, unit-operations educational approach to instead teach from the molecular point of view in a bottom-up fashion. The challenge, however, is to continue to serve the more conventional chemical and petroleum industries while instituting this change. At USC we have developed the two-pronged approach of utilizing (1) a recently-created nanotechnology course-work emphasis within the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and (2) vertically- and horizontally-integrated "degree projects" consisting of nano or bio laboratory modules in successive chemical engineering courses that build upon a student's growing knowledge in their chosen emphasis, while at the same time relating the degree project to traditional areas of chemical engineering. Students in the Nanotechnology Emphasis, for example, synthesize nanoparticles in the Mass Balance course, examine the interaction strength between these nanoparticles in Thermodynamics, size-fractionate these nanoparticles in Separations, investigate nanoparticle catalyst in Kinetics, and examine the thermal conductivity of nanocolloids in Heat Transfer, all culminating with an independent research project in the senior year. A comprehensive assessment strategy is utilized to study these changes to the chemical engineering curriculum, a collaboration between faculty in USC's Viterbi School of Engineering and Rossier School of Education. Three assessment measures are utilized, including an observational rubric, a chemical engineering efficacy scale, and a chemical engineering success scale. This allows robust evaluation of how the merger of traditional chemical engineering subjects with advanced nanotechnology and biotechnology topics using a degree-project approach may better prepare students for today's increasingly molecular-oriented workplace. Preliminary results of year one data reveals chemical engineering efficacy is affected by a variety of factors including gender, experiences, perspective on collaboration, and area of specialization within chemical engineering.