Students discover career options through visits outside the classroom

Written by
Scott Lyon
July 31, 2019

A formula flashed through Selena Chiu's mind as she watched researchers through the window of their lab. Her class had come to Merck in West Point, Pennsylvania, to see industrial engineering up close. Now, face to the glass, she yearned to be on the other side.

"Equations I knew from the blackboard, right there in this lab!" said Chiu, a sophomore in Princeton's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. The researchers were preparing the human papillomaviruses (HPV) vaccine, administered to more than 100 million people since it was approved in 2006.

"Most of the girls I know got that vaccine," she said. "I got that vaccine."

Rates of cancer-causing HPV infections have dropped by around 70 percent in the United States since its introduction. When Chiu recognized the mathematics helping to save so many lives, she saw her own steps from the classroom to the career she had long imagined.

The Merck tour was part of a new course called "Foundations of Chemical and Biological Engineering" (CBE 199). The course, designed and taught by professor A. James Link, gave students a broad overview of the department's curriculum and previewed many of the career opportunities available to graduates.

"I wanted to have a way for students to see what CBE really is," said Link, a professor of chemical and biological engineering. "It prepares you for a broad variety of fields, but students aren't necessarily aware of that variety in their first year."

A graduate assistant leans over to help a group of undergraduates seated around a table
Graduate assistant Kurt Ristroph helps a group of undergraduates with a problem set during class time. Photo by Sorat Tungasiri

Link partnered with the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning to initiate the course, and received support from the center's 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Education. The fund made it possible for Link to develop a new course curriculum from the ground up and take the class on guided tours through specialized facilities like the one at Merck & Co.

Throughout the spring term, 11 faculty members and four alumni from the department presented to the class on topics from across the breadth of the field. Students learned about a wide range of research topics, including the development of smart windows, sustainable new fuels produced with synthetic biology, the use of bacteria in environmental remediation, and studies of mammalian tissue structures that shed light on the workings of cancer. They heard from recent graduates who have gone on to careers in energy, pharmaceutical research, medical school and consulting.

In addition to guests and tours, students learned to solve a sampling of engineering problems from each of the major pillars of the discipline. While introducing the students to the complexity of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat and mass transfer, and reactor engineering and design, the course mainly avoided those phenomena's thorniest numerical thickets. Students who concentrate in CBE acquire those skills in time, according to Link. This preview course was only meant to whet their appetite.

"The goal was to provide an on ramp, something accessible to all students who have had chemistry and calculus," Link said. "So I made it concept-driven without getting too bogged down in the math."

He taught the course using an active-learning model, known as the flipped classroom, where a majority of class time is used solving problems in small groups with instructor support. He also shifted the onus of defining what problems need solving onto the students.

"Like professional engineers, his students [grappled] with open-ended, complex problems in teams. As the literature on teaching and learning suggests, active learning – opportunities for students to read, reason, write, and reflect within an academic field – results in deeper, more durable learning," said Katherine Stanton, senior associate director of the McGraw Center.

She pointed to Link's ability to connect the various concepts of the discipline, ground them in their societal relevance, and give students the chance to reinforce those connections through their own research and interest in the problems.

For Selena Chiu, standing at the threshold of her own career and watching through the glass at the industrial practice of saving lives, that interest crystallized. This course was more than a preview, it was a starting point.