Visiting professor brings new insight into the engineering classroom

Thursday, Sep 13, 2018
by Scott Lyon

Nancy K. Lape has joined Princeton's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering for a one-year appointment as the Kenan Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching.

Lape brings a novel approach to the instruction of engineering fundamentals. Where traditional lecture models rely on passive learning, Lape's model seeks to activate students during class time, leading to improved student learning. Throughout the meeting period, students spend time working on problems and interacting with each other and with the instructor. For her course on "Separations in Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology" (CBE250), students will also engage a series of learning modules, each based on a real-world problem like removing benzene from a wastewater stream or selecting a solvent for tetracycline production.

According to Lape, re-organizing instruction around the kinds of ill-structured problems that engineers face in practice develops the lifelong learning skills students need for 21st century challenges.

"This is a very good opportunity for our students to be introduced to something, in problem-based learning, that we have not yet had a chance to try in this department," said Athanassios Panagiotopoulos, chair and Susan Dod Brown Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

The model is partly based on a controlled study Lape and others conducted into methods of instruction that invert or "flip" the structure of science, engineering and mathematics courses. In the flipped classroom, students view recorded lectures in unstructured time between meetings and participate in problem-solving activities while in the classroom. The NSF-funded research was carried out between 2012 and 2016 at Harvey Mudd College, where Lape is professor of engineering and director of the Lewis Fellowship in Engineering Professional Practice.

She will deliver a seminar on Wednesday, October 3, entitled "An Engineered Education: Design and Optimization of Engineering Courses."

"I'm excited to work with any of my colleagues who are looking to make a change in the teaching of their engineering courses," she said. "Anyone who has run into an interesting problem in the classroom that they're trying to solve." She added that the flipped model should not be seen as a panacea, nor as a threat to other interactive methods. "What's important is active learning and lots of engagement with the students. Beyond that, I say use whatever works for you."

Lape also studies the transport of chemicals across human skin and nanocomposite membranes for use in the separation of gas mixtures.

Originally from Reading, Massachusetts, Lape earned her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota. She received a Career Award from the National Science Foundation in 2009. In 2018 she was recognized with the Outstanding Faculty Award from Harvey Mudd College, where she has been appointed since 2005.