FAQ: Questions about the Frontiers Initiative

Who are you?
Chemical engineers. We come from a number of universities and companies. You will find our names listed throughout the various documents that record meetings and workshops.

Is this an MIT initiative?
No; MIT is only one of a number of universities that have been involved from the start.

What are you trying to do?
We envision a new undergraduate curriculum for chemical engineering. We seek to define it in detail, to develop the materials that instructors need to present it to students, to assist departments in adopting it, and to assess its effects on the profession.

Whatís new about it?
Itís new because itís organized along the lines of molecular processes, multiscale analysis, and systems analysis and synthesis. These are organizing principles - a way to arrange the subject matter of chemical engineering. The curriculum will reflect these.

What do these terms mean?
Short definitions are:
molecular processes, the chemical engineerís molecular understanding of matter: the phenomena, natural and manipulated, that occur at the molecular scale. The processes may be physical or chemical; they operate on molecules that range from the monatomic to polymeric and living systems.
multiscale analysis, the chemical engineerís toolkit: the analytical, computational, and correlation methods appropriate at each length scale. In addition, the ChE appreciates how phenomena at one length scale influence the behavior at another.
systems analysis and synthesis, the chemical engineerís problem-solving approach: analyzing systems by the interaction of their parts, and synthesizing parts into new systems, processes, and products.
For more complete definitions, please read the proceedings of the 2003 New Frontiers workshops. The really complete content - the day-by-day material one can use to teach a course, for example - is under development.

Do you really think you can omit thermodynamics?
Of course not. Thermodynamic principles are important in molecular processes, in the analysis of problems on multiple length scales, and in working with chemical engineering systems. In the 2003 Workshop Series, while pondering the chemical engineering subject matter, we made our thinking more flexible by omitting "thermodynamics" and other habitual terms. Do not take this brainstorming device as a statement of curriculum content.

Why do you want to change the curriculum?
Several reasons: (1) chemical engineering graduates go into a job market of unprecedented breadth. The examples and illustrations in much of the existing curriculum do not reflect this diverse opportunity. (2) Biology is an important enabling science for chemical engineers, and the tools of chemical engineering have much to contribute to applied biology. (3) The curriculum too often comes in separate boxes that are not connected until a senior design course. Integration of tools, and the sense at each stage of being able to do engineering, are ripe for improvement.

But chemical engineers are successful now; why change?
We do not wish to change what makes chemical engineers successful. We are addressing those capabilities more explicitly in the curriculum and calling for a wider range of experience in the curriculum.

Why not simply require a biology course and get some new example problems?
Those are good steps, but by themselves they donít really address the motivating conditions. The new curriculum will almost assuredly feature more input from the biology department and will certainly have a wide range of examples. But it will also weave physical, chemical, and biological material throughout all the courses in the curriculum.

How long will this take?
Several years to refine the concepts, develop some pilot materials, and try them out. Beyond that...?