Then & Now: Chemical Engineering At UofL

By Chuck Gagel

Acknowledgment: A huge debt of gratitude to Professor Jim Watters at Speed School for providing the bulk of the information for this article.

When we arrived  at the Speed School campus in the fall of 1965 as aspiring chemical engineers, we didn’t yet have a good understanding of what would face us for the next five years. Yes, we knew that we were in for a serious academic challenge. But  we weren’t completely sure that our high school curriculum focus on math and science had prepared us fully for that challenge.

We also knew we would be spending a full year practicing what at that time was a neophyte academic craft in the very real industrial world via the co-op program. This prospect was one of the things that made Speed School really attractive to many of us.

Our class was heavy on commuter students so the challenge of entering the “real world” during co-op and perhaps living away from home for the first time was also a bit unsettling. That said, it also represented a “break” of sorts from the academic rigor, provided a chance to practice our limited engineering skills, and earn important cash for tuition or other personal and family needs.

Dean Ernst set an early tone for how we should look at our near and longer term futures, and how challenging our studies would be, during his Freshmen orientation gathering in the Speed auditorium. He told the story about one of his first engineering assignments where he designed a fish de-scaling system that worked to perfection in the pilot plant but was a failure upon scale-up. Why? Because he scaled up everything but the fish! He probably told that story to every freshman class but it was a key lesson: be thorough in your work; apply your fundamentals; sweat the details. As for the reality of the academic rigor we were about to pursue, he also said: “…look to your left and look to your right. One of you won’t be here by the end of the school year.”  Memory doesn’t serve if that prediction was true for the first year, but  but it certainly proved accurate by about year four at Speed!

Who among us can forget the old IBM computer in the basement of the Administration Building! It had a whopping 12K of memory. We all lamented sitting at the punch-card machine, grinding through Fortran language computer program decks, only to find out our clumsy typing skills created multiple syntax errors leading to cards having to be redone, often multiple times.

Today’s students likely could not comprehend that we had no electronic calculators, only the IBM computer,  but we had our amazing slide rules. Our class saw the purchase of the department’s first four function electronic calculator. It sat outside Dr. William’s office and we could only use it on a sign-in/sign-out basis. Today’s students would find all this laughable.

Our class also saw the construction and opening of the then very new chemical engineering building in 1967. Our ChE class of about 25 was taught by eight faculty members. One of the assignments our class had was to re-commission the unit operations equipment moved from the main building and into the new lab area. Many of the unit ops. did not re-start and perform to design specifications, so trouble shooting our way through those real world issues was priceless learning.

Those of us that had the summer academic quarter also got a bonus opportunity: the Speed School Summer Softball League played at the old Parkway field site. The games were spirited and great fun. We also found out we had some pretty darn good athletes as classmates, making the games quite competitive.

In 1970, UofL became part of the state’s university system as the model of a private, municipally funded university was proving financially unsustainable. It also saw the creation of the new MEng degree designation led by Speed School Dean Harry Saxe.

At the time of our graduation, UofL had about 6,000 students and Speed still had its own Arts & Science/Humanities Department, primarily because Speed School was on the quarter system so those classes did not fit the rest of UofL’s semester-based system

Now, the engineering curriculum includes classes “across Eastern Parkway”, something we never experienced, and UofL enrollment is almost four times what it was in 1970.

The Chemical Engineering Department attempted to expand its role in 1977 when it was renamed the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering. The latter never got traction and in 1985 the name reverted back to just the Chemical Engineering Department. Later, the Civil Engineering Department picked up the Environment Engineering banner which is still in place today.

Under the guidance of Dean Mickey Wilhelm during the first decade of the 2000’s, many academic advances were put into place.  Recognizing that, he ushered in a name change from Speed Scientific School, to the J. B. Speed School of Engineering. He also added the Bioengineering Department.

Today, The Chemical Engineering Department occupies about 48,000 sq. ft. of lab & classroom space in Ernst Hall and the department also houses the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research.  The Department now has some shared facilities including the Micro/Nano Technology Center, and the Additive Manufacturing Institute of Science and Technology (AMIST), formerly the Rapid Prototyping Center. There are about 270 undergraduate students in Chemical Engineering today, which is about an order of magnitude larger than our 1970 class. Those students are taught by a faculty of 12 – only four more than in our day. In addition to the quantity of current Chemical Engineering undergraduates, the quality is extraordinary: the “average” ChE student is in the 95th percentile of ACT scores.

Curriculum design today is very different than we experienced, largely due to advances in computer technology. That said, Speed students in our day as well as now study engineering basics in years one and two. However, the first two years’ curriculum today includes Engineering Methods, Tools, and Practices, areas we didn’t get fully into until we choose our engineering major. Studies today are heavy on programming, spreadsheet development, and engineering graphics & design. The next level in today’s progression has students designing and building functioning systems. Then as well as now, students choose an engineering discipline in year three, or decide to move to non-engineering studies at UofL or another college or university.

Chemical engineering-focused classes begin at the 200 level with an aim on preparing students for their first co-op assignments. These are followed by more classical ChE studies: material & energy balances; thermodynamics; fluid mechanics; heat & mass transfer; kinetics & reactor design; separation science; process design; and process control.

Upon entering the MEng ChE final year, student can choose either a thesis or non-thesis based curriculum. In the thesis curriculum, the student takes on a one-year research project and must write and defend their thesis. In the non-thesis option, the student learns how to develop a project proposal, create a budget for the proposal, define how to protect intellectual property, and then develop a business plan.  Almost all the students that choose the non-thesis route tend to pursue careers in industry vs. continuing in academia.

Research in the Chemical Engineering Department takes advantage of two key research centers.  The Conn Center focuses on advanced energy materials manufacturing and characterization; solar energy conversion; power electronics; solar fuels; energy storage; biofuels; and energy efficiency. AMIST focuses on additive manufacturing and 3D printing.

Since 1970, we have seen a lot of change and progress –  what one would expect from a dynamic research university. We encourage our Golden Reunion classmates and all alumni to take advantage of Homecoming weekend, October of 2020, to visit the campus, reflect on our time there, and celebrate the present and future of chemical engineering studies at the University of Louisville.