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.

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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!

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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!

“A major issue in engineering right now is teaching with PowerPoint,” a doctorate candidate at Swansea University told me in passing.

Students sitting near the speaker of all years and nationalities nodded their heads in agreement, whether they were full-time English/Welsh students, international student, exchange students, or Erasmus students.

Since classes began in January in Swansea, I’ve taken careful note of how my different professors taught their engineering courses due to my interest in engineering education. There are positive differences compared to my year and a half Illinois. For example: a number of my professors incorporate videos in their lectures, which I quite enjoy. However, in contrast, a number of my professors use PowerPoint extensively as a mode of teaching. For instance, one of my required chemical engineering courses that I’m taking at Swansea is thermodynamics.

Everyday my thermodynamics professor uses PowerPoint as his only method to convey information and material to students. Instead of working out problems for his students or showing his reasoning and common mistakes, my professor simply displays calculations that have already been completely finished and perfected. There is no student interaction and we are not shown where he found the values he used in the problem. Instead, we are told and then asked if we have any questions.

How are we students expected to form questions when we cannot work through the problem shown and see for ourselves where we do not understand?

The evolution of learning tools in the classroom.

I and my fellow classmates attend lecture solely to sign my name on attendance sheet. We wait until class is over and the current day’s PowerPoint is posted. Then I spend hours reading through and working the problems out myself because I was not given a chance in class to determine what I did not understand and no longer have a professor available to answer questions he never gave me time to formulate. After this, I must work on a worksheet over material┬áto re-enforce what I have learned. However, I did not learn because of the manner the material was taught to me. So instead I struggle with my fellow students with the little guidance of the problems on PowerPoint, worked out with numbers which seem to appear out of thin air.

Learning is an interactive experience. Assigned worksheets will not add interaction to my education. PowerPoint will not provide me with an education experience. I do not ask for guided learning where the teacher watches over the pupil. I understand the UK education system is even less guided than the American system. However, I do ask for the teacher actually perform calculations and allow for input. It may take longer and sometimes the professor may make a mistake, but it is in catching that mistake that I will find my greatest glory. Why? Because it means that I am actually learning the material instead of simply reciting it like a trained animal. I am an engineer who wants to solve problems, but in order to do that, my professors must do more than teach. They must educate.

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