For more than 50 years, Voiland School chemical engineering students have gotten their first taste of the real-world workplace environment in their Units Operations lab course.

There, they have learned critically important skills and have gotten hands-on experience troubleshooting many of the operations of chemical processing plants.

With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and required social distancing, faculty members in the Voiland School have found creative new ways to deliver these important learning experiences for today’s students.

Clinical Assistant Professor Dave Theissen David Thiessen Headshot 2019 is using both remote and in-person delivery for the Unit Ops class. As part of the course, the students typically plan and develop operations for equipment, such as heat exchangers, gas scrubbers, or distillation columns. Students in teams of four have two major projects, spending 6-7 weeks designing, running, analyzing, and presenting each project.

“This is not a cookbook lab,” Thiessen said. “The students have to figure out what to do and what experiments they will run. They have to apply what they have learned.”

flow meter measuring a dilute alcohol solution is entering a distillation column
This is showing a flow meter measuring the rate at which a dilute alcohol solution is entering a distillation column that is continuously separating the water and alcohol.
For remote class delivery, Thiessen set up web cameras throughout the lab, so that students can view different parts of the chemical processing equipment. The chemical engineering lab equipment is large with analog gauges that need to be read and areas that need to be visually monitored to assure proper operation. Thiessen wrote a proposal and received special funding from the WSU administration that enabled him to install several cameras on each piece of equipment, so that students can monitor their experiments remotely after a TA starts them up. In this way, they are becoming familiar with the equipment, so that they are prepared once they enter the lab for the in-person aspect of the course.

Thiessen also received special permission from the provost to enable an in-person component to the course. Each student will attend two in-person sessions of 10 hours each to take data for their experiments. A total of eight of the 37 students in the class will attend at a time, so at the end of the semester, each student team will have about 20 hours of in-person data taking, which is fairly close to what they would get during a normal school year.

Meanwhile, Voiland School faculty are making adaptations in other courses to give students hands-on experience.

Anita Vasavada Headshot 2019 In Bioengineering 322, or Mechanics of Biological Materials Lab, Associate Professor Anita Vasavada also wrote a proposal and received special funding from the provost’s office that enables her to provide students with a kit of materials to create a socially distanced lab in their homes. The kits include a scale to measure forces, utility calipers, clamps, and testing materials, such as rubber bands, foam, and craft sticks.

The course covers skills such as mechanics, experimental design, statistical analysis of data, scientific writing, and teamwork.

With their at-home kits, students are conducting several experiments, such as measuring elasticity by stretching a rubber band, measuring bending deflection and calculating stress, and measuring the bonding strength of adhesive putty. They will also follow along via a web camera with three guided experiments from an in-class mechanical testing machine.

“I am using web cameras so that students can observe the experiments being run while I and my TA prepare and place the specimens,” Vasavada said.