fredag 26 september 2014

Educational system and course curriculum

The intention with this post is to describe the main structure for chemical engineering students at UC Berkeley, University of Borås and Chalmers University of Technology with emphasis on the course curriculum and how this could impact the studies and the outcome. These are the universities where I have the most experience from and they represent different categories. UC Berkeley is American university which is covering many disciplines including both humanities and science. By number, it has the highest amount of PhD graduates in the US. Located in Sweden, University of Borås has a high focus in undergraduate education in many disciplines but with presence of higher level education as well.  Finally, Chalmers University of Technology (in Sweden) is a technical (engineering), research oriented university with education in both undergraduate and graduate levels. 

System at UC Berkeley
The department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering runs one undergraduate program in chemical engineering (there is also one 1-year master program called Professional development program, PDP). All courses given by the department are connected to the program. Some courses are mandatory (9 courses of the bachelor program are mandatory within chemical engineering and additional 9 are mandatory within chemistry, physics and mathematics) and some are electives. Normal pace is to take courses corresponding to 30 units every year; given that the courses are mostly between 3 and 4 units this means 4 courses in parallel each semester. The system is very flexible and the student has a high degree of freedom to choose among the broad spectrum of courses offered at UC Berkeley but each course has a set of course requirements that must be fulfilled before entering. There are additional constraints, making 19 units to be breadth electives (especially emphasis is made on American history and culture) and the student has to manage the right amount of units within engineering, chemistry and chemical engineering in the end to get the degree (apart from the mandatory courses).
 Roughly, there are 140 students pursuing a major in chemical engineering. It is possible to choose the major in the second year but regarding chemistry related majors there are some requirements already in the first year.

System at University of Borås
At university of Borås, a bachelor program in Chemical engineering with specialization in applied biotechnology is offered. It is a three-year program and all courses are compulsory. The reason for the mandatory courses is partly that this program is rather small (with a maximum intake of about 30 students)  and this is the only program related to chemistry and partly that the bachelor degree is given in three years and a number of requirements  must be fulfilled. The idea is that the program is niched and therefore there is no need for further choices.  Typically, the courses are 7.5 credits and each semester is divided in two quarters where the total amount of credits for a semester is 30. This means that two courses are taken in parallel. The program is finalized with a 15 credit independently work (bachelor thesis). One of the courses is given as a breadth course; products, processes and the sustainable society. The university strives to include sustainable development integrated into the regular courses. Two master programs in Resource recovery, one directed towards industrial biotechnology and one directed towards sustainable engineering are offered and can be an extension to the bachelor program.

System at Chalmers University of Technology
Chalmers offer two kinds of undergraduate education in chemical engineering. One program is the professional oriented bachelor program and one is a candidate program. The bachelor program is limited to 25 students and the candidate program is limited to 55 students. In this evaluation mainly the courses involved in the candidate program is considered. Additional to the pure chemical engineering program there is a program in chemical engineering with engineering physics with 35 students and one program in biotechnology with 60 students. The students on the candidate program are intended to pursue a master’s program for two years after the candidate program. This is part of the Bologna process that has been implemented for about 10 years.
The courses different in size but all should make up at least 60 credits each year. The course year is divided in quarters with about 3-4 courses in parallel each quarter (the courses are usually between 3 and 7.5 credits). The program ends with a 15 credit project work that is performed in groups of 3-4 students but individually graded. Special emphasis is made on environment and sustainable development, where at least 7.5 credits should be devoted into this area and the intention is to integrate the subject with chemical engineering. There is not so much flexibility in the candidate or the bachelor program. For the candidate program, 15 credits in the last semester are available for free selection. However, 7.5 of these should be within the MTS block (standing for human, technology and society). In addition to these 15 credits, 7.5 credits are free to choose as a specialization in either chemistry or mathematical modeling. There are 10 different master’s programs available at Chalmers after the candidate degree in chemical engineering (these master’s programs are directly associated with the candidate program) but this is also an opportunity, according to the Bologna process, to move to another university in Sweden or in Europe. The students who have taken the bachelor degree are expected to work in industry but can, after some additional courses, transfer to some of the master’s programs.

Comparisons between the systems
It is clear, that the three universities have different approaches to the structure of programs. This is a reflection of how fast the specialization should be made, what kind of free choices there are for the students, other constraints (such as national constraints) and also about student availability (that is how many students that the university can handle and what kind of educational assignment agreed upon and how many students that are applying and registered at the programs).  The system at UC Berkeley involves the largest degree of freedom for the student at the cost of one extra year. However, if the students are to undertake graduate studies as PhD, this is the common starting level. In Sweden, it is mainly desired that you have a master’s degree before starting research in engineering. It is important to stress, that learning is not something you only do at the university. This is something you can do all the time but what the educational system provides is a methodology and structure how to do this and also to provide a sounds basis as starting point for further explorations.

Flexibility vs specialization
What is the meaning of the education? Who is the receiver of the education or with other words who will benefit from the education? Is that strictly the student, the coming employer, the university or the country as a whole and should they be considered equally important. With flexibility, it is at first glance the student that will benefit due to a larger variety of choices and a possibility of exploring areas of different interests. Most likely this will be following the student all the life and therefore also benefit in all subsequent steps, however the benefit might not be so obvious for the early phase of an industrial case. Specialization, on the other hand, means that the student is more attractive by an employer (it is easier to know what to expect from the newly graduated) but with the drawback of becoming narrower and therefor have a lesser match with random employers (this can be handled by a larger number of programs and good information). The following figure represents schematically how the depth and breadth are progressing in each of the chemical engineering programs (in the graph the following weight factors have been used for each subject; science course 1.4:1.4, breadth course 2:0, Engineering course 0.9:1.8 and, finally, Chemical Engineering course 0:2 where the numbers represent breadth:depth and the course credits are divided by the total number of course credits each year). The line represents equal emphasis on breadth and depth and is only there for visual aid.

Visualization of breadth vs depth at three chemical engineering programs

As can be seen in the figure, the three educations are rather similar in the first year where Chalmers is showing more breadth due to its integrated courses between specialized subject chemical engineering and the more holistic perspectives from environmental and sustainability. This is something that can be seen throughout the program. It is also noteworthy, that the smaller university with fewer choices shows the highest amount of specialization (even though the difference is rather small). Looking at UC Berkeley, it is clear that the extra year gives the student a more depth as well as a better breadth.  As a comparison, Chalmers and Borås are also listed after completion of their master’s program. It can be seen the amount of specialization during these (higher slope) but also that the ending position is quite different. The small university has even more pronounced specialization and the larger university shows high numbers in both depth and breadth.

3 or 4 year program
Four years program provides longer time to educate the student and to foster him or her into critical thinking and judgment and also to show ability to understand new concepts. The benefit with the shorter program is that the student doesn’t have to spend longer time than necessary before he or her will become available for the work market and thus become productive. It is beyond no doubts that students are able to nourish their interests (apart from chemical engineering or what subject they might take) on the time between classes or after they finished the education and by that complete the whole person. The crucial point is to have enough time to let critical thinking appear because this can be implemented in almost all occasions and areas. It is not what particular parts you remember that counts it is what you have knowledge in and how to handle knowledge that is important.

It is also a matter of choice and when to make the choice. Is the choice made before the university studies or are they made after you have started? Students, who are clear about in what field they want to work, are more focused on the actual core subjects than students that have not made up their mind at the start. It is therefore likely that the system which allows for a later choice can benefit students who have not decided their career path early but do so at the expense of an extra year at the university.  

Long or short courses
Different strategies regarding the length of each course is employed by the universities where Sweden aim at having shorter courses (each semester is divided into two quarters) but when needed it is possible to prolong a course so it last for two quarters. The shorter courses gives a higher flexibility but is more demanding on the students because the subject changes more often and you need to understand the demands from each new course. However, changing subjects after 8-10 weeks can also be refreshing, giving an opportunity for a new start. No obvious advantage of either system can be seen and this tends to be more of an overall administrative question for the university.

Courses with different amount of credits
In general, this is seen for most universities and reflects the origin of each course and its content. The main problem with different amount of credits is that the course with low amount is tended to be more overlooked and not prioritized especially by the students. It became clear that courses selected outside the main areas (core courses or courses within the major) the tendency is that the teachers on the core subject are diminishing the other course if there are any collision (two classes at the same time) which puts the student in a delicate situation (on one hand the core courses are within the major and therefore of most importance but on the other hand all course requirement must be fulfilled in order to get a degree and hence it is possible to argue that they should be equally important).

What can we learn from this?
On planning the course curriculum, it is necessary to fulfill the national requirements and to follow the standards expected from society (such as length of education etc.). Both systems have its advantages and disadvantages when regarding the students and the outcome of the education.

One of the key elements in the educational system at UC Berkeley is the wish of educating the whole human which would lead to a broader wisdom and better problem solving skills. There is a delicate balance of the overall education for more knowledge and the usefulness of the student after graduation. We see a trend toward more industrial elements in the courses and for one of the courses (Process design, CBE160) it is even spoken out that it should be taught by industrial experienced teachers.

It is important to stress that the university programs are not intended to be the end of learning but rather should be seen as the formation of a sound base from with further insights in various areas can be gained and incorporated. We want to make sure that the student has such ability after the graduation and the educational systems are made to educate and evaluate this ability. At the same time, it is the duty of the university to provide the different sectors (academia, community and trade and industry in this particular case) with the necessary skills to be useful (the sooner the better). 

Regardless of system used, it is crucial for the universities to motivate and engage the students for their coming challenges. They represent a huge asset not only today but mainly for the future.

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