Take a systems approach

In the United States, control engineers typically are not educated in control engineering departments. Instead, they obtain degrees in such disciplines as electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or chemical engineering. In 2003, a series of National Science Foundation-funded workshops assessed the chemical engineering curriculum.

By Thomas F. Edgar, University of Texas May 1, 2005

In the United States, control engineers typically are not educated in control engineering departments. Instead, they obtain degrees in such disciplines as electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or chemical engineering.

In 2003, a series of National Science Foundation-funded workshops assessed the chemical engineering curriculum. Faculty from more than 53 universities (one-third of the U.S. departments) and five industry engineers reached strong consensus that there is a need for significant change in basic principles for chemical engineering undergraduate education. See https://web.mit.edu/che-curriculum for full proceedings of these workshops. Workshop participants defined the scope of what chemical engineers do and described the elements of an undergraduate chemical engineering education without relying on the current categories of the traditional curriculum, which has been fairly static for the past 40 years.

Three organizing principles emerged. First, chemical engineers seek to understand, manipulate, and control the molecular basis of matter, and the molecular-level processes—physical, chemical, and biological—that underlie observed phenomena in nature and technology. Molecular transformation is a unified treatment of phenomena at this level. Second, chemical engineers are effective because they combine macroscopic engineering tools with molecular understanding. Multiscale analysis deals with phenomena that occur at different scales (such as in a packed bed reactor, ranging from kinetic mechanism to heat duty), and an understanding of how phenomena at one scale affect another (for example, molecular structure can influence macroscopic flow properties).

It is significant that the third organizing principle is systems analysis and synthesis, which is the ability to design or manipulate systems to achieve desired behavior or performance of a product or process. Engineers are fundamentally problem solvers, seeking to achieve some objective of design or performance among technical, social, economic, regulatory, and environmental constraints. Therefore, the systems component of the curriculum should ensure that chemical engineering graduates can:

  • Create and understand mathematical descriptions of physical phenomena;

  • Scale variables and perform order-of-magnitude analysis;

  • Structure and solve complex problems that are open-ended, require estimates and assumptions, and involve integration of knowledge and information;

  • Manage large amounts of messy or noisy data, including missing data and information;

  • Resolve complex and sometimes contradictory issues of process design and deal with sensitivity of solutions to assumptions, uncertainty in data, what-if questions, and process optimization.

The systems component of the curriculum is the part that trains students in tools for synthesis, analysis, and design of chemical and biological processes. Systems education teaches them how to convert scientific facts and principles of chemical and biological systems into engineering decisions.

The knowledge base of a systems education consists of methods for dynamic and steady-state simulation at multiple length and time scales, statistical analysis of data, sensitivity analysis, optimization, parameter estimation and system identification, design and analysis of feedback, methods for online monitoring and diagnosis, methods for design of products and processes, and tools to plan, execute, and interpret experiments. New educational materials should enable instructors to integrate systems concepts into many courses in the curriculum at each stage of an undergraduate’s education. As students learn new scientific concepts, the systems tools that enable specific scientific knowledge to be harnessed for engineering purposes can be presented in parallel.

Author Information
Thomas F. Edgar is a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin.