Happy March everyone! Just a few more weeks until Spring – or, more importantly, Spring Break. Hope you’re all doing well and staying warm, and have had a great semester so far.
It seems for most people, it’s the middle of midterm season right now. I somehow ended up having almost all of my exams be over the course of one week, which was a bit rough, but it’s a great feeling to be done now until after Spring Break! Lately, I’ve been using the extra time to do some more work with the different organizations I’m involved with on campus.
One of the groups I’m a part of is the USC Chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, where I serve as an Academic Committee member. I’ve been spending a good amount of time planning our inaugural Undergraduate Design Challenge, which we designed to give freshmen a chance to get to know each other better outside of their classes, and have a little bit of hands-on engineering and design experience without having to wait until they get to their upper-division coursework.
When you compare chemical engineering to other engineering disciplines, it’s a lot harder to find practical, small-scale projects you can complete in an introductory level class. Mechanical engineers can design a small bridge, electrical engineers can build a circuit, but chemical engineering students can’t exactly build a chemical plant or reactor. But when you really think about it, a coffee maker can be viewed as a chemical engineering process, with its design that includes flow rates, heat and mass transfer, process controls/feedback mechanisms, and phase equilibrium. Moreover, it’s extremely simplified and scaled down – perfect for a group of freshmen to handle.
Planning the project was a bit time-consuming and challenging, and we wondered if the project would even be ready in time for this semester. Fortunately, we pulled it off, and recently officially launched the program. It’s been great to see all the freshman get so excited and interact with one another, which will hopefully help them not only get closer as a class, but also be more excited about their major earlier on.
Being the youngest person involved with planning and running the challenge, I’ve learned a fair amount from it. I’ve gotten a preview of later subjects I’ll be learning, including process controls and heat transfer, and have also gained some familiarity with other useful technical skills, such as Arduino.
It’s also given me an opportunity to tinker around with the inside of a coffee maker, which taught me two things. First of all, those things are ridiculously simple for how much they’re sold for. Second, and more importantly, I know a lot more engineering than I thought! Dissecting the machine without a schematic, we were able to decipher what almost all the different components were used for – resistors to provide heat, valves to control flow rate from the reservoir, and a well-positioned metal plate to ensure water streams were heated uniformly and at the appropriate time. Having confirmed our predictions by analyzing an actual schematic of a coffee machine, it was surprising to see how well we were able to figure out how the machine worked without any reference, and be classic engineers. I guess I know a thing or two after all.