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Experience Chemical Engineering course gives students a taste of engineering in the real world

By Kelvin Noronha, Student Writer

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Hydrogen fuel-cell car.

San Diego, Calif., January 4, 2016 -- In a brightly-lit laboratory room just east of Warren Quad, seventeen students pored over their iPad-based lab reports and put the finishing touches on their engineering projects. These students, mostly freshmen, were part of Professor Aaron Drews’ CENG 4 Experience Chemical Engineering seminar, a course designed to give students a rich hands-on introduction to chemical engineering. The class, which is currently in its pilot phase, is part of the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering Dean Albert P. Pisano’s vision for experiential learning activities that expose students to “real-world challenges that require them to integrate theory and practice.”

Students in CENG 4 met for two hours every week and rotated through three different projects that tested students’ ability to apply fundamental chemical engineering concepts. The tasks assigned to this quarter’s class included constructing miniature hydrogen fuel-cell cars, water cooling towers and an expansive fluid flow network. The aspiring engineers paired up and set to work building and testing their projects, constantly mindful of the underlying principles behind them.

Freshman chemical engineer majors Joy Benjauthrit and Rishi Prasadha spent a class period putting the finishing touches on their hydrogen car, adjusting the chemical mixture needed to propel it most efficiently. Students were provided with a small kit and instructions to construct the car, but had to figure out the ideal propulsion mixture for themselves. Prasadha and Benjauthrit added distilled water to a reservoir in the car, which a battery converted to hydrogen gas through electrolysis. The hydrogen gas then mixed with oxygen to produce electricity that could move the car.

By observing how far the car was able to travel after various parameters were changed, they were able to see firsthand the mechanisms behind the fuel cells that are increasingly relied upon to power alternative energy automobiles and electricity networks. Students were also taken on a tour of the UC San Diego Cogeneration power plant, giving them the opportunity to connect their class projects with real-world applications.

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Freshmen Tina Vu (left) and Aditi Ganapathi (right) work on assembling a fluid flow network.

Another rotation featured a lattice system of pipes arranged on a wall, with blue-colored water flowing through it so that students could easily visualize fluid movement. Students followed a set of instructions to obstruct the flow at different points and observe how changes in water flow matched their expectations based on properties such as resistance and pressure. During this project, students were greeted by a surprise: one particular setup was designed to rapidly push water upward and shoot it out of the pipes, causing a blue cascade all over the lab bench.

The last project featured a miniature cooling tower, which used airflow to reduce water temperature. This lab gave students a chance to work in 3D computer-aided design (CAD). Using common industry software, chemical engineering juniors Firmin Tchiengue and Matthew Lin designed and fabricated a tower component that would maximize the surface area of air-water contact.

Tchiengue said that although he enjoyed designing his own cooling-tower part, he liked the fluid network lab the most.  “It was a very effective learning experience seeing how the flow changed so visibly with every modification we made,” he added.

The fluid network lab wasn’t the only project to get good reviews. Prasadha commented that of the three projects, the hydrogen fuel-cell car was his favorite. “It was the most fun by far since we could watch the car move around, and I could really see how everything was applicable to real life,” he said.

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CENG 4 Professor Aaron Drews assists students in class with their iPad-based lab reports.

Fortunately for other students interested in the course, enrollment is not strictly limited to chemical engineering majors or freshmen. This allows students with a passing interest in the field to get a taste of what it’s like. Freshman chemistry major Tina Vu, who was working on the fluid network lab with fellow freshman Aditi Ganapathi, signed up for the class to get an idea of what chemical engineering is like in practice. 

“Since I’m currently a chemistry major, it seemed like an interesting idea, and so far it has left a good impression,” Vu said. “I like the ability to work with the subject material in a hands-on way, and it’s a lot easier to learn without the added pressure.”

For upperclassmen, the class builds on and reinforces material already learned in other courses, exposing students to it from a new perspective. Chemical engineering senior Akash Patel, who completed most of the required CENG lectures and labs at UC San Diego, commented, “Both lab and lecture classes come with their own set of challenges – different students are going to be suited to each one differently. For this class you really need to have an intuitive understanding for the material beyond just memorization.”

The course is only in its pilot phase, but based on the feedback from students, the Experience Engineering courses will likely grow in scope and number. With its unique curricular approach, CENG 4 looks to be a successful addition to the UC San Diego catalog.

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Liezel Labios
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-246-1124
llabios@ucsd.edu

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