Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Conversations with UCI Chemical Engineering Students

Thoughts on recent conversations with chemical engineering students at UCI - University of California at Irvine.   [UPDATE - 6/12/2014: added a link to a virtual slide rule]

I recently had the honor to attend a graduation celebration for chemical engineering students at UCI, the class of 2014.  I had met many of them earlier during one of my speeches to their AIChE student chapter.   Their exuberance, intelligence, and thoughtful questions are always a pleasure to behold.  

This post describes a bit of the conversations I had with some of the students, with no names mentioned to protect their privacy.  

I asked several what they intended to do after graduation.   I asked others who are not yet graduating what attracted them to chemical engineering as a course of study.  The answers gave an opportunity for great conversation. 

One student wants to work in the oil and gas industry.  Another already has a job with a major engineering design firm.  Yet another will pursue an advanced degree in nuclear engineering.  Other new graduates don't yet have a job offer and will work very hard to find a job.  

I mentioned that this is a golden age for new chemical engineers, since the oil and gas boom due to hydraulic fracturing has created much work for all the new plants that are being designed and constructed.   Most of the plants are along the US gulf coast and not in California, however.   

One student mentioned that he or she (privacy concern here) went into chemical engineering to be able to design nuclear power plants because those are the energy supply for the future.   This was not the student who will pursue the advanced degree in nuclear engineering.  

I paused and thought about what to say.   I do not believe the student was aware of my views and my blog posts on nuclear engineering.  Finally, I decided to speak up and mildly told the student and the others who were listening at our table that nuclear power plants are inherently uneconomic and unsafe.  Besides, there are not sufficient raw materials to build enough power plants to rely on them for the world's power.  The student was not pleased to hear this, as I expected.   I gently suggested the student visit my blog and read the articles there on nuclear power - after final exams, of course.  

Another student wanted to know what had changed in engineering since I had graduated.  I usually get a laugh on this one, as I replied that when I started my studies in 1972, we were still using slide rules.   To my surprise, a few students at our table did not know what a slide rule is.  The others described it very quickly.  I told them that the first pocket calculators were available for sale in my second year, and by our third year we all were expected to have one or borrow one for the exams.   

I suggested they not laugh, because most of the world's infrastructure was designed and built by engineers who used slide rules, not computers.  They doubted this, until I told them that every bridge built before about 1970 was designed via slide rules.   Similarly, refineries, chemical plants, power plants - even the nuclear plants  - were designed in that way.   Even skyscrapers and their elevator systems were designed in that manner.    This information was a bit sobering, I believe.   

I related my oft-told story of taking a small circular slide rule on my trips to Brazil in the late 1970s as a backup to my pocket calculator.  The heat and humidity in the jungle ruined the calculator and I used the slide rule for my calculations.  It worked, no matter what.   

I told them that having a laptop with a powerful spreadsheet such as Excel (TM) was an unbelievable advance in chemical engineering studies.  We would have almost died for access to such a marvel when facing our homework problems.    We did have a mainframe computer available to us for a few problems, but the input was via punch-card decks and output was hours if not days later.   

Here's to the UCI 2014 graduates: may you have long and very happy careers!  

UPDATE - 6/12/2014: here is a link to a virtual slide rule.   Warning:  this thing is addictive!   Instructions for use are included in the link.  see link    Note for use: click and drag the center section left or right.  Also, click and drag the cursor left and right.   --  end update

Roger E. Sowell, Esq. 
Marina del Rey, California 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Roger for coming out! I always enjoy your presence and your stories. I feel that you give students a more real sense of what to expect in the engineering world.

I hope to see another presentation by you next year!