STUDENT "COMPANIES" LEARN A "MOLECULAR-TO-SYSTEMS"
PERSPECTIVE FOR SOLVING UNIT OPERATIONS PROBLEMS

Professor Darrell Velegol
In the Department of Chemical Engineering at Penn State University, Professors Darrell Velegol (left) and Seong H. Kim are educating "companies" of students who can analyze at the molecular level, but who can also conduct design at the systems level. Students form companies of five or six. Each student specializes on a certain aspect of the experimental station, and then use cooperative learning to teach their part to the entire company.

Velegol explains, "Our Armfield distillation column has many functions: separations and thermodynamics, heat exchange, full process control. The unit is visual, operates under computerized control, and records the data in a computer. Not only do students analyze the separation process at the molecular level, but as a company they design methods for increasing yield or optimizing energy use."

The original piece of Armfield equipment for process control
The original piece of Armfield equipment, for process control.
Until a few years ago, the Penn State lab used equipment that was sub-optimal for teaching outstanding 21st century engineers. But since then, almost $400,000 has been invested in the lab on new equipment and upgrades. Proposals were written to and funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, with extensive matching funds from the Department of Chemical Engineering and the College of Engineering. Professor Themis Matsoukas purchased the first piece of Armfield equipment a process control unit about six years ago. It is, according to Velegol, a rugged piece of equipment, easy-to-use, and capable of clearly demonstrating control principles. In addition to the distillation column and process control unit, the lab now includes an Armfield process-controlled CSTR and a combination liquid-liquid extractor/distillation unit. These account for about half the financial investment in new lab equipment and upgrades.

Velegol notes, "One key to the lab is the apprenticeship the students receive in conducting these systems-level operations. The students first learn the experiment - easy to do on the Armfield equipment - and then they conduct base-case studies. But they quickly progress to proposing new ideas for increasing yields or attaining specified purities, which they can also run due to the versatility of the Armfield equipment. They run the experiments, conduct the necessary computer simulations, and explain the molecular-level aspects of the work. They write and re-write and re-write again drafts of written and oral presentations as a company, getting weekly feedback from the faculty."

New laboratory
Faculty, staff, and perhaps most especially students have been instrumental in achieving the new lab. The department head, Professor Henry C. Foley, has been instrumental in attaining funding, proposing themes, and supporting ideas.

Velegol notes, "Our undergrads have an international reputation, and we owe it to them to provide the tools they need to maintain that status. But our undergrads - and we graduate up to 150 very bright students per year - have also been constructive in helping us to upgrade our lab. They want to run new experiments, try new ideas, and produce change."

Others have also had input in changing the lab. Don Lucas helped to clear the old equipment out and install infrastructure to support the new equipment, an important phase of the upgrade. Dave Decapria has used his technical expertise in electronics, hydraulics, and equipment to maintain and improve the lab. In addition, Mr. Decapria recently attended a training session on Armfield equipment near London, England. Having reliable and easy-to-use equipment from Armfield also provides the time-opening necessary to bring in new ideas and equipment. Two years ago the department installed a bio-pharma separations unit, and soon Professor Kim will be installing an electronics processing station. Velegol says, "Keeping the lab at the forefront is an ongoing process, and we use all the help we can get."

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