computer and toolboxThe Chemical and Materials Engineering Faculty at UAH


The Chemical Engineer's ToolBox

The microprocessor is challenging engineering educators to examine in a fundamental way how to teach. Students can now solve many computationally difficult problems using a number of software tools. The wide open internet and the open source movement is now providing students and faculty with unprecedented access to expertise from sources all over the world. The growth of freely accessible websites with tutorials, example problems, software continues with no end in sight.

Faculty face the challenge of guiding, teaching and then instructing students on the number of techniques that seem to grow by leap and bounds each year. Students must be taught using techniques that will complement their understanding and not take away from it. Computing technology is a double edged sword and unless used appropriately can create more damage than help.

Students entering a four year college or university are usually computer savvy – they have seen or worked with a word processor, some graphics programs, email programs and know how to look for information on the WWW using search engines. Some students are also familiar with designing and creating their own programs. We as educators must teach ALL students how to think about engineering problems, develop the capacity to evaluate available computing techniques to obtain solutions and if necessary write their own programs (or macros) to get to the solution.

Engineering education is however not about computer literacy nor is it about the ability to locate the program needed to solve the problem at hand. We must educate students so that they develop a solid understanding of the engineering fundamentals, who can identify the essential elements of the problem than simply turn out whiz programmers. We have the rather difficult task of integrating the programming capabilities along with a development of engineering fundamentals. How to do this remains a subject of some debate. One way we can achieve this is by appropriately integrating computing tools throughout the curriculum. Students can be first assigned problems that can be solved using a pencil and paper. The instructor can then show students how simple problems can be solved using a set of computer tools (perhaps a programming language, a symbolic mathematics package or a general purpose simulation package). The instructor can then show how the solution of the problem gets complicated when real life constraints are imposed, when the solution properties are changed from ideal to non-ideal fluids and so on. This will effortlessly lead to the concept of the computer assisting in the development of a solution with the engineer taking the central role in problem formulation.

A successful engineer is one who can quickly identify the most appropriate tools to solve the problem at hand. He/She will not be beholden to a particular piece of software but use the program that will do the best job in the most efficient manner. Our task as educators is to help guide the students to a core set of tools, software that can be used to solve several different classes of problems and demonstrate how they can choose the right tool for the job at hand.

We have collected tutorials, several example problems using programming languages, spreadsheets, computer algebra systems (MathCAD, Maple and Matlab) and simulation software (Aspenplus, ASCEND, ChemCAD). We have provided links to websites that (in our opinion) offer such tools also.

Categories Examples
Programming Languages Python,    Fortran,    Java,   VisualBasic
Spreadsheets Microsoft Excel
Computer Algebra Systems SciLab,    MathCAD,    Maple
Simulators ChemCAD,    Aspenplus,   ASCEND
Links to other useful sites MathCAD(Hwalek,Maine), ASEE Examples
Other useful websites Techniques, software, methods