467831 Stealing a Freshman-Level Separations Project
Use of “the Separation Project” in the Ohio University chemical engineering program was motivated by a desire to include a hands-on project early in the curriculum that could be safely conducted outside of a laboratory class, and was inspired by a project described in a 1996 Chemical Engineering Education article by Carol McConica. [Carol McConica, “Freshman Design Course for Chemical Engineers”, Chemical Engineering Education, 30(1), pp. 76-80, 1996.] The core goal of the project is to design, build, and test an automatic system to separate a mixture of small objects. It provides an allegory for chemical separations, in which the chemical engineer identifies and exploits differences in the properties of the components in order to separate them from a mixture. It illustrates technical principles such as recovery and purity and the difficulty of achieving high levels of both, the effect of changing the order of separation steps, and the reality of variability in operation. It can also be used as a vehicle to develop teamwork and communication skills, to teach the iterative nature of the design process, and to introduce principles of economics or of statistical analysis.
The core concept of the Separation Project can be modified by changing the number and types of objects and by setting different milestones and deliverables to be a useful learning vehicle in a variety of settings. The project was initially assigned by Young at Ohio University in the sophomore “Material Balances” course, but has moved to the freshman Introduction to Chemical Engineering course to provide an early design experience in the curriculum. Young also used this project for three years in a class of STEM education majors, to give them experience with the engineering design process and how they might use it in their own K-12 classrooms. A teacher in Texas has adapted it for use in a summer engineering program for rising high school freshmen.
At CBU the separations project was incorporated as the third and final module of a team competition. Teams would begin with a container filled with objects. The first module needs to acquire and transfer the objects to a transport unit. The transport unit moves the objects to the separations unit. Then the separations unit exploits property differences to try to achieve high recovery and purity (as was done with the project at Ohio University). Teams are made up for students from various majors and broken up into three groups, one for each module. Students are exposed to principles of chemical, mechanical, electrical, civil, software, and biomedical engineering. Students learn about the basic design process and develop teamwork and communication skills. Students also encounter the difficult task of interfacing with other groups on the teams, where they need to find a balance between optimizing performance of their module with meeting the needs of the other modules and the team as a whole. The final competition occurs during a large Design Showcase where the public is invited and design projects from juniors and seniors are also put on display.
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