Project-based learning is essential for the growth of engineering students. Among other benefits, it allows students to work in teams, fostering problem-solving and communication skills through hands-on learning. To promote the creation of courses that emphasize these vital skills, the School of Engineering, under the direction of Dean Ned Thomas, introduced the Enriching Engineering Education (E^3) Grants Program in 2015. The initiative provides funding of up to $20,000 for faculty to develop courses that increase active learning in the classroom, enrich faculty-student interactions and bolster excitement about engineering.
Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Rafael Verduzco, along with Francisco Vargas, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Kyriacos Zygourakis, the A. J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, applied for E^3 funding for CHBE 490, a class dedicated to the building of chemical powered cars. The new course provides a semester-long, structured space for participating students to design, build and test cars that can compete in the regional Chem-E-Car competition sponsored by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
“We used the funds to provide the supplies students needed to build their cars,” said Verduzco, who taught the course this fall and will teach another section next semester. “The actual building was done at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. “This was very much a student-driven course; students did the research and design themselves.”
Two teams of eight students each not only built chemically powered cars, they also created posters explaining the cars’ capabilities. In competition, a car must stop and start based on a chemical reaction, carry a specified amount of water and go a certain distance. Teams are not told what weight the cars will carry or the distance they’re expected to travel until the competition. Once they receive the specifications from the judges, teams must determine the chemical reaction needed to power their vehicles, based on testing they’ve done throughout the building phase.
Last week, the teams held a trial run in Duncan Hall in which each car had to carry 200 milliliters of water and travel 10 yards.
“I worked on the starter for our car,” said Daniela Cleary, a senior. “And we built our fuel cell from individual parts we’d ordered online.”
Cleary said it was a challenge because she hadn’t built anything before.
“We would troubleshoot and talk to the company that sold us the parts, and they were incredibly helpful in giving us advice.”
Cleary’s team, C.H.U.C.K., was named for the man who helped them build the fuel cell.
Their car was fueled by hydrogen gas reacting in the 10-stack fuel cell, and stopped by an iodine clock reaction apparatus.
“Having a hands-on class like this was pretty cool,” said Margaret Roddy, a junior. “It was a chance to learn other disciplines, like mechanical engineering. No one on our team had built anything like this before.”
She was part of a team called The Moving Car, and said that the course gave her a chance to work with chemical engineers in different classes.
“It was great to overlap with different grades,” she said of collaborating with seniors. “We don’t always have the opportunity to do that.”
Verduzco sees the course as a fun and challenging way for students to put theory into practice.
“Lots of times, chemical engineers might be asked to design a power plant in their coursework,” he said, “but they’re not going to be able to build one. This was a way for students to take something from idea to completion. The E^3 funding not only paid for materials, but will help fund travel to the regional competition, where we’ll hopefully qualify for next year’s nationals.”
In addition to Verduzco’s course, other 2016 E^3 winners were:
Beata Krupa and Gayle Moran, lecturers with the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership: “Building a Robust Communication Program for Rice Engineers”
Renata Ramos, a lecturer in Bioengineering: “Increasing Engineering Identity in First‐Year Students by Developing Engineering Curriculum to Supplement Freshman‐Level Physics Courses.”
Gary Woods, professor in the practice in electrical and computer engineering: “Freshman Seminar Survey of Engineering Disciplines.”
Proposals for the 2017 round of funding will be due in Fall 2017. For more information, click here