Question Time: Education

Article by Amanda Doyle

Experts from academia and industry discuss the challenges in chemical engineering education and where it needs to go in future

IChemE’s second centenary webinar, Shaping the future of chemical engineering education, saw the panellists discuss the challenges faced in education and training, how these challenges can be met, what will need to change, what future curricula and classrooms might look like, and how to engage with the next generation.

More flexibility is needed

One of the challenges that was discussed was how teaching became virtual during pandemic lockdowns, and whether hybrid teaching should continue. Wielechowski said that he sees the desire from students and trainees for flexibility will only keep growing. “I think the hybrid environment is where we need to set our sights for the next little while. It really seems to be more flexible so you can, for example, take a lesson from wherever you need to be.” Hemmani pointed out that while she preferred learning in the traditional style of going to lectures during her degree, that didn’t always work well for her fellow students. She said that students have different learning preferences and abilities, and that we need to learn from and accelerate the hybrid teaching that was introduced during the pandemic.

Glassey said that she initially found it difficult not getting the same feedback from students that she would in a lecture theatre, but that it’s important to find ways to make it work. She also added that virtual classes can have the advantage of bringing people across the world into the same virtual space. “The higher education sector really needs to think on its feet because the landscape is changing significantly – not just the demand from the industries – but it’s also the students that are coming into the institutions. Universities simply cannot afford to stay business as usual.”

Glassey also said there needs to be more creativity in how the fundamentals are taught. She gave the example that when she’s teaching mass and energy balances, she also teaches more industrially and societally relevant examples such as biodiesel or UHT milk production as well as the more traditional distillation examples.

“I think the hybrid environment is where we need to set our sights for the next little while”

The value of internships

Hemmani said there needs to be more focus on the importance of internships, saying that students could take opportunities each summer to experience different sectors – including outside engineering – to help them decide what career path to take. She said that it is mandatory in Malaysia to do at least one internship during an engineering degree. Glassey said there aren’t mandatory internships in the UK as it is difficult to ensure that there are enough student placements available. She said this situation has become more difficult in recent years as the number of students has increased.

Wielechowski said that internships can help students decide which classes to take in their next semester and give them very broad experience as a graduate. He added that perhaps internships should have set goals and timelines, and that it would be easier if there was a better alignment between universities and industry to coordinate internships, as different universities have different holiday periods and semester breaks that make it difficult for industry.

Oliyide suggested that it would also be helpful if the core curriculum trained students to be more entrepreneurial so they can take advantage of the range of skills they are taught. She said this could lead to a group of students who had worked on a project deciding to take it further, or encourage students to get in touch with students in other universities who had worked on similar projects. This would bring about more small and medium-scale chemical engineering companies, which could then create the possibility for more internships. 

“The higher education sector really needs to think on its feet because the landscape is changing significantly”

Micro credentials

Shallcross said that universities need to be thinking outside the box on how to support industry. He gave the example of teaching students about Industry 4.0, saying that from the perspective of industry, a student doesn’t need to be taught everything, just the basics, and that something like a graduate certificate in Industry 4.0 for chemical engineers would not be the best way forward. “That’s not necessarily what industry wants. Industry might prefer to have micro credentials; smaller bites which they can then tailor to their requirements. So if they are interested in Industry 4.0, they might want to learn about database design or artificial intelligence. I think we need as academics and universities to realise that there are other models of education that would be better suited for industry.”

“We need to teach them the basics, have them go out in industry, and then perhaps later on get them coming back doing some of these micro credentials and fill in the holes that they now understand they need in their careers.”

He added that micro credentials could work the other way around, with data analysts or programmers working in industry getting micro credentials in chemical engineering concepts.

“We need to teach them the basics, have them go out in industry, and then perhaps...fill in the holes that they now understand they need in their careers"

Inspiring the next generation

On how to inspire the next generation to become interested in engineering, Glassey said that outreach should focus on children in primary school, as younger children are more likely to be interested in finding out how things work. She said it was also important to influence the influencers, so that teachers and parents are more aware of the benefits of chemical engineering.

Shallcross said it is crucial to improve diversity in engineering by getting more women and in the case of Australia, indigenous communities, to consider engineering. Oliyide added that it’s also important to show people just how broad chemical engineering is to encourage young people to think that they can contribute to a better society by becoming an engineer.

Watch the webinar recording:

Join the centenary discussion!

Next up: The potential future trajectories of society and how the work of the chemical engineering profession may be tasked to add value

In the next centenary webinar, a panel of chemical engineers will discuss the importance of chemical engineering to society. The panellists include Marlene Kanga, Genevieve Bell, Tom Burke, Adeeba Kamarulzaman, Lilly van Gilst, Victoria Barnes, and Kyel Steensma. Kanga, who is a member of the social experience editorial panel for the centenary, has written a blog on the topic prior to the webinar. “Engineers are essential for developing and implementing the solutions necessary for sustainable development and to address pressing global issues, including climate change, resource utilisation and energy transition,” writes Kanga. “Engineers need to be more aware that their responsibility to society goes beyond technical competency and be thoughtful about the impact of their work on society and the environment.”

She adds that chemical engineers have played a crucial role in enabling high standards of living, and now need to address global challenges to improve the quality of life for future generations.

Register for the 13 April webinar here:

Submit your questions for the panel ahead of the webinar here:

Kanga’s blog will be live from 1 April here:

And for more on the centenary, including historical reflections from IChemE members, visit the dedicated website:


Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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