Last summer, I spent eight weeks in sunny, humid Tuscaloosa, Alabama doing research at the University of Alabama. It was amazing opportunity because I learned a lot about metabolic engineering and microbiology while creating a potential renewable biofuel. The idea was thus: have bacteria generate butanol so that it could be harvested and used as a high energy fuel. However, this was much easier said than done.

2012-07-20 10.27.03

In order to scale up my bacteria research at Alabama, bioreactors larger than would be needed.

After two months of research, I had to ask myself: When will this happen? Will bacteria be the new biofuel creators? Could my research be scaled up industrially? I didn’t feel like my work was making an impact. My research had the potential to save the world, or at least our ozone layer, but there were so many problems with it that needed to be fixed. The bacteria only grew when fed glucose, an expensive form of sugar. It also didn’t produce much butanol because it was acidic so instead it made butyric acid, which couldn’t be used to power vehicles.

For summer 2013, I wanted an internship because I wanted to have a job where I made a difference everyday.

I wasn’t looking for a job with oil. In fact, LyondellBasell was the only petrochemical company internship I applied for because I was extremely familiar with the company. I knew if I worked for them, I would have a great job with meaningful projects while working with nice, enthusiastic people. I was right. Everyday when I go to work, I have to opportunity to directly optimize refinery production. One of my long term projects will change longstanding operational orders. Another project will be used by engineers for years to come to monitor their equipment.

When I end my internship next week, I will look back at my accomplishments and say with pride, “I did that.”

I’m sad to think that most of my chemical engineering professors have only research experience and no industrial experience. Now, I have seen both sides of the coin. There are similarities: both are independent, time-needing and specific projects. However, research is on micro scale, while industry is on a macro-level. In research, I dealt with bacteria and editing DNA. In industry, I climb through 40-foot distillation towers and contactors. In research, I examined test results from extremely accurate, very expensive analytical instruments. In industry, I monitor process variables off of controllers which are not always accurate. One flow meter actually reads in the negatives unless a valve is opened enough!

2013-07-30 13.49.50

I recently attended a scholarship conference through Cargill where we volunteered at a local food bank. The way I felt afterwards is how I want to feel everyday after work.

I feel that my education is to idyllic like a controlled research environment instead of the ever-varying, not-so-steady-state workings of industry. Education needs to work with industry and vice versa to better improve education so that it can teach students what is necessary for industry. The majority of engineering undergraduates will take industrial jobs after obtaining their bachelor’s degree, so higher education must teach students accordingly. If this is done properly, industry will have better engineers and colleges will see an increase in engineering college recruitment for interns and full-time. With education and industry working together to improve engineering education,

What inspired this post: I recently was offered a potential opportunity to help improve design projects within chemical engineering courses to help improve the design projects and make them more relevant to the engineering industry. I’m so excited! Do you have any suggestions? Shoot me an email at bakies2@illinois.edu. I’d be happy to hear from you!

I miss homework.

In less than a month, I will complete my final exams at Swansea University, finishing my semester abroad. Two of these exams are worth 100% of my final grade. One exam is worth 90% of my final grade. My final exam, the only multiple choice test I will receive this semester, will be 50% of my final grade. To be honest, the thought of all my grades relying on one test performance terrifies me.

Dr. Sheldon Cooper demonstrates how I feel about studying notes without practice homework problems.

I would have less of a problem with the ways grades are determined in the United Kingdom if I had more of an opportunity to practice what I’m learning. Over the past three and a half months, I have had only five homework assignments to work on and turn in promptly. My classes which rely on finals alone to determine final grades have not even offered optional homework problems. Old exams from past years are the only study tools I have and the answers are not included.

I’ve truly realized the true value of homework and I can’t wait to return to the United States where the value of homework problems as a learning method is more fully realized. I know I will eat my words in no time upon returning to Illinois, but let me share with you the reasons why homework is actually kind of really awesome.

5 Reasons Why You Should Stop Complaining About Your Homework

  1. You have the opportunity to develop your problem solving skills. Since elementary school, teachers expect students to solve problems, but students receive little instruction on proper problem solving techniques. No, I don’t count the scientific method we learned at the beginning of every junior high science class because I remember memorizing the steps for a quiz and never consciously using the scientific method again. This teaching failure causes a deficiency in these skills. The best remedy is to use homework problems to become a better problem solver.
  2. You have the ability to practice and apply what you’re learning. Here in Wales, my only opportunity to apply knowledge is with past exam papers which cover all of the class material in a mostly non-linear fashion. I’ve had very little opportunity to check my knowledge and understanding of concepts as I go. Homework, no matter how tedious, ingrains habits and methods to complete complicated problems into your brain. Last semester, I complained about how tiresome solving matrices became after the fifth homework problem, but now I actually miss it.
  3. You’re forced to study the material. It’s easy to say you understand something after reading it, but the truth comes out when you try to apply what you’ve learned. Homework makes you think beyond the words on the page. Learning does not mean understanding. Understanding comes from applying what you learned and making connections. Homework is the catalyst that turns learning into knowledge.
  4. You receive feedback on your work so you know what you don’t understand. In the UK, professors aren’t supposed to post exact answers to their past exams, even though these exams are all we have to study. In the US, my heart always dropped to see a red line slashed through the last half of a long homework problem. But this also told me how to fix it. For that, you should be grateful.
  5. You’re making major mistakes on small homework problems instead of the exam. In retrospect, homework is worth a mere fraction of your grade, no matter your education system. However, most of my grades result from homework and my reaction to graded homework. I practiced concepts in my assignments, understood what I needed to study more, and focused on the hard problems from past homework assignments. I missed hard problems on small homework assignments, but this led to focused studying so I could succeed on important tests.

This being said, there is such thing as too much homework. Students with an overload of assignments (myself included) may go through the motions and might look for shortcuts instead of seeking learning from coursework. There must be balance. I would love to see a couple more assignments from my classes in Wales to better check my knowledge and understanding.. The other solution is to create practice problems with guided and unguided solutions. Generally the UK describes its college education system as less supported than the US, but that does not mean UK classes should offer no support.

Overall, homework is a great opportunity to learn. Please, take advantage of it next time it’s offered to you.

%d bloggers like this: