Chemical Engineering Education in the Age of Disruption

Chemical Engineering Education in the Age of Disruption

26th August 2020

Chemical engineering educators had already been trying to adapt to and manage the impact of the rapid development of new technologies and advances are having upon education.

Industry 4.0 has prompted the chemical engineering education community to engage with, and adapt to, the digital transformation agenda. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit global communities, it caused huge disruption to learning, and saw remarkable efforts to take learning fully virtual.

Despite online learning playing a strong role in many chemical engineering education establishments across the world, the disruption COVID-19 has caused saw Esther Ventura-Medina, Chair of IChemE’s Education Special Interest Group (EdSIG), to reflect on what still needs to be done for the virtual future in an article in The Chemical Engineer.

Dr Esther Ventura-Medina, Chair of IChemE’s Education Special Interest Group (EdSIG)
Image courtesy of the University of Strathclyde

“Universities have been embracing the use of digital technologies, not only to derive benefits in the context of learning but also in the training of future professionals. Industry 4.0 has been a significant driver for these changes,” she wrote in The Chemical Engineer.

“Chemical engineering has been at the heart of these disruptive evolutionary processes, as many of them relate to produc­tion and manufacturing. Consequently, our educational establishments and frameworks have needed to engage with and adapt to this constantly-changing landscape.

“However, it has been only now in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic that I realised how much we still have to do and perhaps how unpre­pared we still are for the virtual future.”

The Chartered Chemical Engineer is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. Her research group SkIL: Skills, Interactions and Learning investigates how problem-solving, teamwork and decision-making are developed through interactions and can help to improve performance and inform training. Lately, her work focussed on using web 2.0 technologies and specialist software to apply to problem-solving, critical thinking and teamwork in engineering education.

Prior to this she worked in various engineering education roles at Monash University in Australia and The University of Manchester, UK, teaching and developing curriculums with particular expertise in using web-based technologies in teaching and learning. It saw her win the Teacher of the Year Award at Manchester for her contributions to the development of the eLearning portfolio in chemical engineering.

So, she is no stranger to integrating the newest technologies into engineering education, but notes the rapid response required to the pandemic was still disruptive to ensure learning outcomes are met and has led to some calling it “emergency online teaching”.

She wrote: “As the COVID-19 propagation wave moved from east to west it was possible for many university departments to start planning, albeit within short timeframes, the best response to mitigate it. For instance, many universities in Australia and New Zealand delayed the start of their academic year beyond February and then, when they started, moved to remote online teaching.

“Moving to online teaching was not perhaps the main issue. Universities are well equipped with technologies and platforms to deliver online teaching, as virtual learning environments (VLEs) are commonplace. Universities also have communication platforms that allow for video conferencing with large numbers of attendees.”

In the article, she explains more on how campus closures meant chemical engineering departments have been relying heavily on video lectures and the shift in interaction from face-to-face learning that has been felt. She gives a great example of how once during a lecture she reacted in the moment using a different interactive exercise to demonstrate fluid flow when her students were struggling to understand. This, she said, would not have easily transferred to an online environment.

Esther explains the work IChemE has been doing with the Engineering Council in the UK to provide guidance on compliance with accreditation during this time. Flexibility and understanding that assessment processes and the way learning outcomes are delivered that still maintain and meet high standards have been key.

What’s more, as part of its role in our learned society for chemical engineers, our EdSIG has been supporting the educational community sharing good practice and tips for online learning and assessment. Our EdSIG has also teamed up with the Heads of Chemical Engineering UK (HCEUK) delivering a series of webinar workshops throughout July and August focusing on blended learning, hybrid laboratories and assessment.

As the initial response to the crisis has been tackled, in the article, Esther looks to the future and the importance of embracing the challenges posed to the chemical engineering education community to prepare us for the digital transformation agenda.

“The last few months have been challenging for everyone but there is no doubt that the chemical engineering education community has shown tremendous resilience and unity,” she wrote in The Chemical Engineer.

“In order to meet the demands of the Industry 4.0 agenda it is essential to maintain an open mindset that allows us to explore new opportunities. Including the use and development of disruptive technologies in our core curriculum is key.

“COVID-19 has represented a jump forward in the timeline of educational development and has provided a pivot to change our paradigms.

“I invite everyone in IChemE, not only those in academia but also industry, to be part of this transformation by connecting with the EdSIG activities, events and initiatives - contact to get involved.”

To read the full article and Esther’s views on the impact from, and the future of, chemical engineering education due to COVID-19, visit The Chemical Engineer.

Find out more about upcoming Education Special Interest Group webinars. They’re free to attend and open to all.