The History of Chemical Engineering and Pedagogy: The Paradox of Tradition and Innovation


  • Phillip C. Wankat Purdue University


The Massachusetts Institute of Technology started the first US chemical engineering program six score years ago. Since that time, the chemical engineering curriculum has evolved. The latest versions of the curriculum are attempts to broaden chemical engineering to add product engineering, biology and nanotechnology to the traditional process engineering, chemistry and energy. Although there have been attempts to add flexibility, the chemical engineering curriculum remains monolithic (all students take almost identical sequences of courses) and hierarchical. Chemical engineering textbooks have tremendous staying power because authors have time to adapt to slow changes in the curriculum. Chemical engineering has been somewhat schizophrenic – chemical engineering research has covered all areas in which chemical engineers believe they can make a contribution, but departments have been notably unwilling (until recently) to expand the borders of the undergraduate curriculum. Despite the conservatism of ChE departments, chemical engineering has been at the forefront of helping new professors learn how to teach and individual chemical engineering professors have been leaders in the push for engineering education reform. Examples of chemical engineering leadership in pedagogy include the Chemical Engineering Division of ASEE Summer School every five years, the Division’s publication of the journal Chemical Engineering Education, and leadership in teaching professors how-to-teach. Individual efforts include the development of the guided design method, introducing Problem Based Learning into engineering, \ laboratory improvements and hands-on learning, the textbook Teaching Engineering, and the championing of cooperative group learning. Despite these efforts, most ChE professors insist on lecturing. This paper will provide a brief history of chemical engineering programs, curricula and pedagogies.

Author Biography

Phillip C. Wankat, Purdue University

Phil Wankat has a joint appointment in Chemical Engineering and in Engineering Education at Purdue University. He has a B.S. ChE from Purdue, a Ph.D. from Princeton, and an M.S. Ed from Purdue. He is the associate editor of GEE.