WPI Chemical Engineering Professors Recognized for Developing New Introductory Curriculum

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WPI Chemistry Professors recognized from left to right; David Dibiasio, William M. Clark, and Anthony G. Dixon

WORCESTER, Mass. -- A new approach to the way introductory chemical engineering courses are taught at WPI has passed a range of tests, including rigorous scientific analyses, the considered judgment of faculty and specialists, and enthusiastic assessments from another meticulous quarter: the students themselves. Now, the teaching approach has gained a significant professional recognition as well.

The American Society for Engineering Education recently presented Associate Professor William M. Clark of Worcester, Mass. (and a native of Rock Hill, S.C.), Associate Professor David DiBiasio of Paxton, Mass., and Professor Anthony G. Dixon of Worcester, Mass, who developed the new sophomore curriculum, with the 2001 William H. Corcoran Award for the best paper published last year in the journal Chemical Engineering Education. Sponsored by Eastman Chemicals Corp., the award was presented at the organizationís annual meeting in Albuquerque.

The three professors, each of whom has a strong research interest in education, wrote a three-part paper for the journal titled, "A Project-based, Spiral Curriculum for Introductory Courses in Chemical Engineering." Part 1, subtitled "Curriculum Design," appeared in the journal's Summer 2000 issue; Part 2, "Implementation," appeared in the Fall 2000 issue; Part 3, "Evaluation," co-written with Lisa Comparini of Clark University, appeared in the Spring 2001 issue.

The paper describes a comprehensive overhaul of the sophomore curriculum in the Department of Chemical Engineering supported by a grant from the federal Department of Education. At WPI, the sophomore year is the year chemical engineering majors begin taking introductory courses in the discipline.

Clark, DiBiasio and Dixon term their approach "spiral" because basic concepts aren't assumed to be fully learned on their first presentation, but are revisited during the year in different contexts and in an increasingly sophisticated way. The approach is "project-based" because students work on open-ended design projects, carefully tailored to their level, throughout their sophomore year. Previously, extensive project-based learning was not emphasized until the senior year.

A key feature of the new curriculum is the integration of topics that traditionally had been taught in a manner that tended to compartmentalize them. Encompassed into one yearlong course are topics from the four traditional core courses: material and energy balances, classical thermodynamics, mixture thermodynamics, and staged separation processes. The new course offers beginning material from each traditional course, followed by intermediate material from each, and so on. Through the spiral curriculum model, key concepts in the four disciplines are revisited throughout the year.

It's a design that leads students to make connections between ideas previously treated separately, gets them actively and cooperatively involved in learning, and reinforces key concepts by drawing on fundamentals in new ways.

The authors explain that the curriculum was reformed to help attract students with a diversity of backgrounds and learning styles, and to then to maintain their interest in the discipline and their motivation while preparing them for demanding careers that will require not only technical competence, but the ability to communicate well and to work in teams.

"In the traditional approach," they wrote in Part 1 of the paper, "the chemical engineering curriculum provides a compartmentalized sequence of courses that aims to build a solid, fundamental foundation before providing integrated, capstone and/or engineering practice experiences in the senior year."

Problems that arise from this educational structure, they said, include lack of motivation for learning fundamental material; poor retention of material needed for senior-year integrated experiences; segmented learning, resulting in a lack of ability to integrate material presented in several different courses; and lack of ability to extrapolate knowledge and skills gained in one context and apply it to another.

To shape the new curriculum, more than 135 specific skills and topics from the four traditional courses were identified, along with general skills such as report writing and oral communication. The co-authors prioritized the topics and skills and rearranged them into a four-spiral sequence, and designed appropriate projects to supplement lectures, discussions and textbook work.

The three professors were thorough in the task of evaluating their new curriculum. They delivered it, along with a teaching assistant and a peer learning assistant, to a third of the 1997-98 sophomore class and to half of the sophomore class of 1998-9, selecting the students randomly. The other sophomores, who were taught the traditional curriculum, served as a control group for the evaluations.

In addition to the professors' own judgments of the curriculum's success during the trial period, external consultants provided objective evaluations through qualitative and quantitative measures. These included surveys, interviews, videotaping of class and project work, end-of-term course evaluations, a novel process-design team competition, and an end-of-year comprehensive exam. Students' teamwork and communication skills were assessed, as were their individual achievements, and the competence and assurance with which they approached fresh engineering problems.

Although the trial period showed that some minor modifications were needed (the difficult subject of solution thermodynamics, for instance, could not be effectively introduced until later than the original spiral design called for, the new curriculum was a tremendous success overall.

As the authors state in Part 3, "Results from a variety of measurements and analysis converged upon a consistent answer. Compared to traditionally-taught students, spiral-taught students displayed equal or better understanding of basic chemical engineering principles, were better in teams at solving open-ended problems, had higher satisfaction levels with their academic experience, had higher retention rates (that is, more students stayed in the major), were more confident about their choice of chemical engineering as a major and performed better in upper level chemical engineering courses."

During end-of-the-year team competitions, the authors wrote, "We observed that spiral-taught teams behaved more like practicing chemical engineers attacking a problem, while comparison teams behaved like students of chemical engineering.

"In fact, we were quite surprised that differences between spiral-taught and comparison cohorts were so dramatic in so many different areas," the authors conclude. The curriculum has since been adopted for use with all chemical engineering sophomores at WPI. During the two years it was being fine-tuned and evaluated, the curriculum was well received by nearly all the students who took it. "I found it easy to relate to the material being taught because the projects applied it to real-world applications," Matt Dion Ď01 said of his sophomore experience. "The project-based, spiral curriculum was a lot of work, but I feel the skills I learned prepared me not only for subsequent classes, but for a successful career." In their paper, the professors quote other words of praise from students, including one who seemed to sum up a key goal of the undertaking: "... without step-by-step procedures being provided, we were really forced to think and comprehend exactly what we were doing and why we were doing it."