Chemical Engineering Education in the Age of Disruption

Article by Esther Ventura-Medina CEng MIChemE

Esther Ventura-Medina wonders what will the future look like after Covid-19?

IN recent years, the education sector has been considering, discussing, adopting and trying to manage the impact that technology has had and will continue to have on the educational business. The technological developments we have experienced of late have been both rapid and expanding. 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. 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.

In this context, the chemical engineering education community has engaged with the digital transformation agenda. This has been reflected in how chemical engineering programmes are delivered and in particular the inclusion of elements of digital learning in course delivery. 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.

One of the key questions I have been pondering is why has Covid-19 been such a disruptive event in our educational programmes in which the use of online learning is already so prevalent? Moreover, where will this disruption take us? How do we reconcile our current reality with our plans for the future? I share some reflections here on recent events and their potential impact for our future in the chemical engineering education community.

The Covid-19 forward jump

In many ways Covid-19 has been a long jump forward into the future. Many of us, myself included, might have imagined a digital future as it is sometimes portrayed in the movies, with ubiquitous automation, robots and most of our interactions through a screen or at a distance. However, the  Covid-19 jump has landed us in a different reality, one in which demands and constraints perhaps might not fit our earlier mental schemes.

As engineers, our ability to respond to any event is closely related to our capacity to anticipate and plan. Knowledge of risk assessment and risk management places chemical engineers in an advantageous position to consider scenarios with uncommon events. Yet the scenario of a global pandemic is perhaps one that I certainly never anticipated nor, prior to  Covid-19, had I ever heard discussed in the chemical engineering education community.

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. By the time the pandemic arrived in continental Europe and finally in the UK, most chemical engineering programmes had already activated or had planned contingency for online remote teaching. Eventually we all found ourselves in the midst of global campus closures and online working.

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. The response to the  Covid-19 situation to move all teaching to online platforms (ie VLEs and video conferencing) was expected. However, this quick response (now called in some circles “emergency online teaching”) was still disruptive.

What has emergency online teaching meant for the educational experience?

Educational endeavour is underpinned by what we know about learning (ie learning theories) and the approaches we adopt in order for learning to occur (ie pedagogies). There are three key elements that serve to guide educational design:

  • what is it that we want the students to be able to do (ie intended learning outcomes, or ILOs);
  • how we provide meaningful learning opportunities (ie learning activities); and
  • how do students demonstrate the level of achievement of their learning in terms of knowledge and skills (ie assessment of the ILOs).

The ILOs are mostly guided by both accreditation requirements and other desired graduate attributes. Traditionally, a significant amount of assessment for standard courses (non-laboratory or group-work based) takes place at the end of the semester in the form of sit-down examinations. In terms of learning delivery we typically see a combination of lectures, tutorials, projects or group work and practical activities (eg laboratories). Similarly, we find a combination of face-to-face and online activities. This combination is what we call “blended learning”.

With the closure of campuses around the world in response to  Covid-19, chemical engineering departments relied heavily on video lectures as a substitute for the face-to-face experience. This was done mostly by offering pre-recorded videos, a series of shorter video clips and by live streaming. It is worth mentioning that lecture recording has, over the years, become a common practice in many universities where the infrastructure is in place for the recording to take place during normal timetabled lecture slots. This has been beneficial for students as they can access the videos at a later date but it has also resulted in a reduction of attendance at the face-to-face lectures.

Delivering lectures is perhaps the form of teaching delivery easiest to transfer to online environments. Having said this, there are many aspects of a regular lecture that one could not replicate in a video lecture. I compare attending a video lecture to watching your favourite band on television. You can enjoy the music and the special effects in a comfortable environment but you miss out on the atmosphere and the buzz that comes with being at the concert venue. Likewise, for the band itself, recording in a studio and/or for television will also be a different experience from performing on a large stage. A performer cannot gauge the crowd and respond to their enthusiasm in the same way while recording at a studio. Similarly, for a lecturer being in the lecture theatre and seeing the faces of all the students is very different from delivering a video lecture where on a small screen it is only possible to see up to 40 faces out of all the attendees.

Traditional tutorial sessions, where students work either in teams or individually, practising problem-solving through exercises with the support of tutors have also been transformed under Covid-19

I remember some years ago giving a lecture to 200+ students and talking about the effect of increasing particle density on the characteristics of the fluid flow through a packed bed. I used images and video clips to describe the effect on pressure drop but I noticed students looking slightly puzzled. I paused and simply asked for some volunteers to participate in a demonstration. I arranged two groups of students standing at different sides at the front of the lecture theatre. One group was represented the particles and the other the fluid. I asked the ‘fluid’ to move around the ‘particles’. We changed the pace at which the ‘fluid’ moved and added ‘particles’ to increase packing. In the end, we all had fun and they got the idea. This simple example illustrates that face-to-face activities are not always easily translated to an online environment. Online activities require careful planning. Among other aspects, socialisation and interactions in an online space are harder to initiate and sustain.

Traditional tutorial sessions, where students work either in teams or individually, practising problem-solving through exercises with the support of tutors have also been transformed under  Covid-19. A range of strategies has been used across different departments. Some examples of these are online sessions with breakout rooms for smaller group work each supported by a tutor, drop-in sessions with a single tutor, discussion boards or a combination.

One of the biggest challenges of online delivery during Covid-19 has been dealing with the lack of access to laboratory infrastructure after campus closure

For chemical engineering programmes one of the biggest challenges of online delivery during  Covid-19 has been dealing with the lack of access to laboratory infrastructure after campus closure. In some departments, students were given access to virtual laboratory exercises while in other cases there was no option other than to cancel the laboratories. Strategies for dealing with remote laboratory practices have ranged from providing students with real or simulated data for them to manipulate and analyse, giving videos of equipment operation together with supporting questions or in some cases a combination. In the case of computer-based laboratories, students in many departments have been provided with off-campus access to licensed specialist software, though this is largely contingent upon university-provider licensing agreements.

Providing meaningful learning opportunities online has not been the only challenge faced by chemical engineering education departments. One other major challenge has been delivering assessments that are robust and at the same time avoid issues around academic integrity and potential malpractice. When the norm is sit-down invigilated examinations for the majority of courses, maintaining the integrity of the assessment can prove quite difficult, especially over time zones and with large cohorts. Institutions issued blanket cancellations of sit-down examinations and consequently the majority of departments have been issuing alternative assessments. These alternatives have been mostly in the form of take-home exams, essays or a series of online assessments that either covered the ILOs as originally planned or those that had not already been covered by other prior in-semester assessment. In some cases, original design examinations have taken place as scheduled but through online platforms with relaxed time restrictions to accommodate downloading and uploading papers with timeframes from hours to days but without invigilation.

Students have also experienced difficulties during the lockdown. Due to lack of resources (eg computers, books) at home, many have not been able to carry out their studies as usual. I know of students who had only restricted access to a household computer as it is a shared resource. In some cases, in particular for those working on their final-year projects, departments have even delivered computers to individual students’ homes. Departments have also done a tremendous amount of work to support the student community, providing additional pastoral care.

The major difficulties that chemical engineering departments faced, and in some cases are continuing to face, are two-fold. Firstly, on the learning delivery front, the lack of access to laboratories is problematic. Secondly, in respect of demonstrating that ILOs are met, the assurance of the quality and integrity of assessment processes remains challenging. Both of these are key aspects of the IChemE accreditation requirements and understandably, departments have been particularly concerned about their impact on accreditation status. Consequently, all chemical engineering departments either accredited or seeking accreditation have turned to IChemE for support.

IChemE has been working closely with the Engineering Council UK to provide guidance relating to compliance with accreditation in the face of  Covid-19. Meeting the required learning outcomes is still a necessity to maintain standards. However, IChemE has recognised that these rapidly-changing circumstances required flexibility in education provision and  that the learning outcomes may be delivered in a different way and that there are likely to be changes to the assessment process. Additionally, in response to the current situation, IChemE has given a blanket extension of one year to all accredited programmes. 

IChemE’s Education Special Interest Group (EdSIG) has been working to support the educational community by sharing examples of good practice, resources and tips about online learning and assessment through its monthly newsletter and its webinar programme. Additionally, EdSIG has joined with Heads of Chemical Engineering UK (HCEUK) to organise a series of online workshops aiming to share practice and lessons learnt. These workshops will take place in July and August ( and will focus on blended learning, hybrid laboratories and assessment.

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. However, there is still much to be done to shape the future.

The future after Covid-19

The pace at which changes typically occur in the education sector has been relatively slow compared to that of technological developments. There are many benefits to online learning but in order to enable a digital transformation it is necessary not only to move beyond where we are now but also in the right direction.

Covid-19 has placed chemical engineering education at an inflexion point. Chemical engineering departments have responded to the immediate crisis. However, I fear that some of the practices put in place now as part of emergency online teaching might become permanent over time. There is merit in our efforts but it is important to recognise the difference between reactive short-term solutions and the need for quality digital learning in the longer-term future. Over-reliance upon the former will not only hinder educational development but also jeopardise the mission of the chemical engineering programmes, ie to train graduates able to contribute to the solution of global challenges in a socially responsible and safe manner.

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. Some innovations such as 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality are already present in some programmes but their wider use in chemical engineering education is still emerging. Using artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things within education also needs attention.

For educators to design and deliver training in these areas successfully it is also important to upskill. Working within communities of practice and strengthening our networks will help us achieve this to successfully deliver our mission.  Covid-19 has represented a jump forward in the timeline of educational development and has provided a pivot to change our paradigms. It has forced us to consider our previous educational settings. More importantly, it has opened up opportunities to accelerate change and advance the transformation of the educational endeavour. As Chair of EdSIG, and a member of the chemical engineering education community, 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).

Finally, we need to foster a closer relationship and dialogue with students, as they are at the heart of these changes.

Article by Esther Ventura-Medina CEng MIChemE

Senior Lecturer at the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Strathclyde and Chair of IChemE’s EdSIG

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