Many first-year students arrive in undergraduate engineering programs eager to tackle problems with technical complexity and societal relevance. Chemical engineering provides a powerful set of tools to engage with pressing challenges in energy, health care, and environmental domains. Academics, industry professionals, and educators alike emphasize the problem-based approach of collaborative, creative, transdisciplinary teamwork as the driving force of a productive engineering education. Yet, professional success in engineering requires diligent training in applied science, often in a variety of academic departments, and not necessarily including the context of engineering design. Thus, first impressions of engineering design are a critical bridge between the motivations of incoming first-years and the rigors of a complete engineering education.
In this paper, we present a 60-minute Desktop Reactor Design workshop designed to introduce first-year chemical engineering students to their prospective field of study. In the workshop, participants brainstormed a comprehensive set of relevant parameters for engineering a chemical reactor, designed and tested several iterations of a hands-on desktop model to optimize mixing in such a reactor, and drew conclusions from their empirical observations. Then, the learners worked in a team to prototype a reactor vessel with 3D modelling software, justifying their design choices by considering reactor volume and geometry favorable for mixing. Throughout these activities, learners were curious and engaged, thoughtfully weighing and selecting design choices, offering and debating new ideas, and raising questions to be answered throughout the rest of their chemical engineering studies.
Designing this workshop, we aimed to activate the existing knowledge, skills, and motivations of these learners as resources for building knowledge about the chemical engineering discipline and for identifying and practicing skills for creative and productive engineering design. Moreover, these learning experiences followed a cycle of reflection and action to support collaboratively building knowledge without first having to introduce significant amounts of background content. This workshop affirms the problem-based motivations of engineering students while providing relevant connections to the chemical engineering discipline, forming an essential bridge for first-year undergraduates.
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