Course prepares chemical engineering students to be valued work team members

Jamie Oberdick
June 18, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Teaching students teamwork skills that they can later apply in the workplace is the focus of the capstone design course CHE 470: Design of Chemical Plants, offered in the spring and fall by the Penn State Department of Chemical Engineering.

Throughout their education, students work on many group projects,” said Dawn McFadden, assistant teaching professor of chemical engineering.However, the common strategy is to divide up the tasks and then combine them at the end versus working as a team while completing the tasks. The goal in CHE 470 is to have them work on a self-regulated team as they would in a professional environment.”

McFadden, who took over teaching CHE 470 in 2015, received a grant from the Penn State Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education to make the course more active-learning focused. Active learning is an educational technique where students actively engage in instructional activities and reflect on what they are doing, as opposed to passively taking in information via a lecture. 

In the course, student teams bring all the building blocks of the chemical engineering curriculum together through the process of designing a chemical plant. Each team designs a different chemical plant, under the guidance of two instructors, McFadden and Gary Aurand, associate teaching professor of chemical engineering, and volunteer alumni mentors from industry.

“The current CHE 470 course structure is as close to a real industrial design project as one can get in a classroom environment,” said Ken Graziani, retired chemical engineer and board member of the Penn State Engineering Alumni Society, who serves as a course mentor. They start with scoping options that lead to a base case design, then detailed computer modeling followed by economic analysis and economic scenario evaluations.

According to McFadden, the economic aspect of the project sets CHE 470 apart from other College of Engineering capstone design projects.

“CHE 470 is driven by economics as an industrial plant design would be,” McFadden said.The students generate possible options for the plant, producing the most economic process that also includes sustainability considerations.”

The course structure includes a typical lecture that all students attend, along with two-hour blocks that different sections attend. Early in the semester, students complete in-class exercises that demonstrate how different personality types contribute to a team. The teams then write their own code of conduct, complete with agreed-upon consequences for breaking the codes. 

If a teammate is not significantly contributing, they can be removed from the team,” McFadden said.

There are several in-class exercises to practice skills needed for the design project, such as computer modeling and completing a cash flow analysis. Additionally, there are peer reviews and meetings with the professors and industry mentors so that the teams receive multiple types of feedback, as well as time for the teammates to work together. The entire plant design follows the stage-gate process, a project management technique where a project is divided into distinct stages, and are separated by decision points, known as gates. The gates are where team members assess whether the previous stage worked well, discuss the rationale for continuing on in the project’s path and create the action plan for the next stage.

The teams create design options, then reduce the options to a base case, with the reasoning of producing the most economic process including sustainability considerations. Then, they create a complicated computer model of the plant using industry modeling software. Using the model, they design the equipment and then determine the capital and operating costs for the plant, altering the model as needed. They complete a cashflow analysis for their plant operating for 15 years to determine the net present value and internal rate of return. Finally, they produce a report in both written and video form. 

“The alumni industry volunteers not only mentor but also play the role of project managers similar to the real world,” Graziani said. “Students not only must deal with the chemical engineering design issues but handle real-world team and leadership issues. They must also demonstrate communication skills in writing their report and producing their video.”

According to Graziani, the overall goal of the course is producing students who are confident and ready to make the leap into employment.

“While this course is very intensive, requiring many hours of student effort, when the students have completed their project, they should feel rather comfortable participating in real industrial design projects,” Graziani said.

A paper on the course, "Collaborative Project-based Learning Approach to the Enculturation of Senior Engineering Students into Professional Engineer Practice of Teamwork," will be presented at the 2020 American Society of Engineering Education Virtual Conference June 22-26 by Yu Xia, a Leonhard Center research assistant; Stephanie Cutler, assessment and instructional support specialist; and McFadden.



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Last Updated June 18, 2020