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The education of chemical engineers in the third millennium

John E.Gillett

Independent Loss Prevention Consultant
(Chairman of EFCE Working Party Education)
34 Church Lane, Gawsworth, Macclesfield, Cheshire SK11 9QY, UK
Tel: 0044/ 1625-432599

E-mail: Contact


This paper summarises the work of the EFCE Working Party Education (WPE) over the last decade and attempts to identify effective educational solutions to meet the challenges caused by the rapid rate of change in technology and society world-wide.

The paper uses the results of a WPE survey of curricula in European Chemical Engineering Universities completed in 1994 to identify a core curriculum and provide guidance on what to teach chemical engineers at first degree level. The paper describes later studies of the chemical engineering educational needs for biotechnology, Safety Health and Environment (SHE), holistic thinking and product design to provide further guidance on what should be taught. The paper then explores how to educate chemical engineers most effectively using the latest methods available. The concept of life-long learning is also explained.

The paper includes a description of the evolution of chemical engineering from its origins in the petrochemical, heavy chemical and nuclear industries, to its current wide range of application in industries such as fine chemicals, food, pharmaceuticals, software, and cybernetics. Current international trends in chemical engineering education are reviewed against this evolution to identify how to educate chemical engineers to adapt to new technology and to develop new applications of chemical engineering science.

The needs and expectations of the global society have prompted the application of chemical engineering to develop sustainable technologies. The paper thus concludes by addressing the challenge of how to educate chemical engineers to develop sustainable technologies that will not prejudice the quality of life of future generations.

1. Introduction:

Education is the key process that ensures the survival of the human race. It is the driving force for improving human society and technology and has been the process for transferring knowledge from generation to generation ever since the first humans existed. The survival of human society, its environment and its technology depends on the education process.

Education applies to the whole body of personal knowledge and to the whole of society. (Training is usually considered as a sub-set of education that relates to specific, practical, topics or situations). To understand and design an effective education process requires a holistic approach. This approach is particularly applicable when considering chemical engineering education.

This paper describes a view of how chemical engineering education is part of a general education process, how it has evolved, and what factors may affect its future evolution. At this point, a brief description of the education process and a definition of chemical engineering are necessary.

2. The Education Process:

2.1 Stages in the education process:

A detailed analysis of modern educational theory and practice is outside the scope of this paper, but the key principles are referenced and used where applicable. This paper is specifically about the university or tertiary education of chemical engineers in Europe, so pre-tertiary education is not described in detail.

The human education process operates throughout the human lifecycle 'from cradle to grave' with varying intensity and formality depending on age and social environment. Although it is convenient to consider the education process in stages relating to the human lifecycle, it is important to remember that each individual follows a unique path that may not fit a single model.

In most modern societies, formal education for everyone starts at infancy and is compulsory until about 16 years of age or later, depending on student ability and social conditions (Refs.1, 2 & 3). The UNESCO international standard classification identifies a typical national education structure in five stages:

  • Pre-primary
  • Primary
  • Lower secondary
  • Upper secondary
  • Tertiary (Non-degree, First Degree and Postgraduate)

The various stages of the education process depend on the culture of the individual society. In this context, it is important to note that the process of selection used to help individuals choose the path most suited to their abilities is often controlled by criteria that may have socio-political aims as well as quality objectives (Ref. 4).

Education is a continuous process that transforms the level of knowledge and wisdom of individuals and of society as a whole. It is useful to consider education as a combination of the learning process and the teaching process (Ref. 5).

2.2 The learning process:

The learning process is complex and not fully understood. Nevertheless, it is of considerable importance when attempting to optimise the teaching process with which it is closely linked (Refs.4, 5 & 6). Learning can be considered as a four-stage process that consists of:

  • Having an experience.
  • Reviewing the experience.
  • Drawing conclusions from the experience.
  • Taking an action to confirm the conclusion or generate a new experience.

Each individual learns in a personal way with variations on this four-stage process. Also, the process is iterative and depends on the feedback during the process. The time taken to learn a subject depends on individual intelligence and the subject knowledge content. Intelligence is difficult to define, but appears to be a mixture of perceptiveness, aptitudes, memory, spatial awareness and subconscious processes. The subject matter may range from abstract concepts to facts. Learning and understanding concepts and new ideas is more difficult than assimilating facts.

Four important factors contribute to effective learning (Refs. 4 & 6):

  • The readiness of the student to learn.
  • The desire of the student to learn.
  • The ability of the student to learn the subject structure and gain a general understanding of the subject matter.
  • The student learning to use intuition to think productively.

2.3 The teaching process:

The teaching process has been the subject of much research and argument. Most modern school-teachers place great value on students discovering things for themselves so that they can gain a proper understanding of the subject being taught (Refs. 4, 5 & 6). In universities, the process depends heavily on lectures by learned people who may not have been trained to teach. (N.B. University lecturers rarely refer to themselves as teachers. This is a symptom of the university mindset.) Although chemical engineering students should largely be able to learn unaided, there is a potential gap between the teaching and learning processes. To overcome this potential weakness, chemical engineering courses have always used tutored practical work, case studies and direct experience in industry. This approach, developed from experience, used discovery as a means of gaining understanding in advance of modern teaching practice.

Teachers manage the teaching process using a wide variety of methods, materials, equipment, services and organisations. The relationship between the teacher and the student is crucial to the effectiveness of the teaching and learning processes, as it can affect motivation. Students depend strongly on their teachers during their childhood whilst they are learning how to learn. In tertiary education, university students are usually less dependent on their teachers and can teach and motivate themselves.

2.4 The concept of mindset:

The knowledge and experience gained during an individual lifetime affects the way that the individual perceives and interprets events in the world. The individual thus develops a "World-view" (Weltanschauung) or "Mindset" that affects his or her thinking processes, values, beliefs and emotions. A change in mindset, sometimes referred to as a "Paradigm shift", is very creative or enlightening and usually affects the emotions. For example a joke depends on a shift of mindset about a normal situation to generate laughter.

Most of the preceding models and principles of education presented here were derived from the study of children and young adults in schools. It is assumed that the general principles, nevertheless, can be applied to tertiary education although the role of the teacher may be less powerful. It is important to note that childhood education develops the individual mindset and that this has a significant impact on subsequent tertiary education. For example, foreign travel during childhood may create an awareness of different cultures that in turn may prompt a desire for student exchanges during tertiary education. Childhood education and experiences that nourish an inquisitive and open mind are beneficial as the resultant mindset may lead to the development of new ideas throughout a life-time. Chemical engineers rely heavily on the ability to think holistically that also depends on the mindset.

3. Chemical Engineering:

3.1 What is chemical engineering?

There have been many different definitions of chemical engineering during its evolution. It must be noted that, in most previous studies and in this paper, chemical engineering and process engineering are regarded as synonymous. Irrespective of a generally agreed definition, academic and industrial chemical engineering organisations have both stressed the uniqueness of chemical engineering as a primary discipline. Chemical engineering is not a sub-set of either chemistry or mechanical engineering (Ref.8). For the purposes of this paper, the following definition will be used:

Chemical engineering is the conception, development, design, improvement and application of processes and their products. This includes the economic development, design, construction, operation, control and management of plant for these processes together with research and education in these fields.

Many people and organisations have been involved in the development of chemical engineering and chemical engineering education over the last decades. Most of the material in this paper has been generated under the auspices of professional chemical engineering organisations, in particular, from the work of the European Federation of Chemical Engineering working party on education.

3.2 The European Federation of Chemical Engineering Working Party Education:

The European Federation of Chemical Engineering (EFCE) Working Party "Education" (WPE) is one of the EFCE technical working parties that are co-ordinated by the EFCE Science Advisory Committee. The WPE was first formed in 1983 and then disbanded in 1987 having fulfilled the tasks defined by its terms of reference. The WPE was subsequently re-formed in 1992 to analyse the function of chemical engineers in industry, to predict industrial trends for fifteen years ahead, and to propose a target core curriculum for first degree courses. A report of the results of this work was presented to the EFCE General Assembly in 1994 (Ref.7). This report introduced the use of a triangular diagram to relate the results from a survey of different chemical engineering first degree courses in Europe to the disciplines of Industrial Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering and Chemical Engineering Sciences

Following the curriculum survey, the EFCE identified a further programme of work on biochemical engineering education that was reported in 1996. The current WPE work programme includes the teaching of chemical engineering, sustainable technology and continuing education. A pilot survey of the teaching of Safety Health and Environment (SHE) was made in order to develop a wider survey of teaching practice. However, the information gathered from this pilot was too scattered to analyse effectively and has not been reported. The null result from the pilot prompted the WPE to try and develop better methods of gathering information. The potential of using web-site technology for this purpose is currently being explored.

The WPE currently represents 21 countries and has 33 members of whom 27 are academics and 6 industrialists. The WPE organises symposia and meetings on relevant educational topics and participates in major European and other chemical engineering congresses. In 1996, the WPE, from the many conference sessions and meetings in which it was involved, identified one of the key problems facing chemical engineering. The problem was "How to adapt without losing identity?"

3.3 How to adapt without losing identity?

Chemical engineering has survived extremely well in a changing world by assimilating or developing new subjects into curricula and by adopting a holistic or systems approach to process design. During the last decade, however, it was feared that this ability to adapt might go too far. Some chemical engineers worried that branching off specialist subjects from chemical engineering might lead to its eventual demise. New branches such as food engineering, pharmaceutical engineering, biochemical engineering, environmental engineering, fire engineering, etc. threatened to disrupt or dilute the basic curriculum or to divert potential chemical engineering students away from the mainstream discipline. The WPE, after consultation with chemical engineers in industry and academia, suggested three ways forward to overcome the problem (Ref.7):

  • Concentrate on the basics of chemical engineering science at first degree level.
  • Enhance holistic or systems thinking skills at first degree level.
  • Provide continuing education after graduation.

In order to concentrate on the basics at first degree level, it was suggested that chemical engineering curricula should have three elements:

  • Basic Science
  • Engineering core
  • Electives

The basic science should underpin the core of chemical engineering. The electives were expected to provide opportunities for universities to teach their special subjects derived from their research projects. A more detailed account of this approach is given later in the section on curriculum development.

4. The evolution of Chemical Engineering in the last millennium:

4.1 A brief history:

Although "Mary the Jewess", an Egyptian of the early Christian era, is said to have developed crude oil distillation, chemical engineering as we know it emerged as a separate discipline at the start of the twentieth century (Refs.9 & 10). At that time, the heavy chemical industry had developed, particularly in America and the UK, to a point where it triggered the need for chemical engineering to be invented. Chemical engineering provided a way of analysing the wide variety of processes in the heavy chemical industry in terms of a small number of unit operations. It was not long before chemical engineers extended the unit operations approach to include chemical reaction engineering, nuclear engineering, particulate systems, and other process systems. Initially the processes involved were continuous, but as chemical engineering science evolved from a mainly physical basis to include more chemistry and chemical reaction engineering, batch processes were involved. At the same time, the need to optimise processes economically prompted a systems approach to overall process design that eventually became a core element of chemical engineering. Over the last few decades chemical engineering evolved to embrace a wide range of different industries and technologies.

In particular, chemical engineers took a major role in Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) and developed and applied these subjects to meet industrial and societal needs. The use of computers for process control and process modelling also became a key requisite for chemical engineering. Chemical engineers also established a significant role in the life sciences and biotechnology. In spite of the diversity of industries and technologies to which chemical engineering was applied, the discipline still retained its core knowledge base and characteristics. The need to survive in a rapidly changing world continued to drive the development of chemical engineering throughout the last century to the end of the last millennium. The time is now ripe for chemical engineering to re-emerge in a new form to meet the needs of the third millennium.

4.2 Rapid and accelerating rate of change globally:

Throughout the last century there has been a rapid and accelerating rate of change in industry, technology and society that has led to significant changes in the requirements for chemical engineering and of its public image.

In industry, the globalisation of businesses, the growth of multi-national organisations and the increase in company mergers, significantly affected the field of chemical engineering applications. "Re-engineering" of organisations to obtain improved productivity reduced job opportunities in the industries conventionally involved in chemical engineering. The increasing use of contractors to cover peaks and troughs of demand, plus the value employers placed on competencies and skills instead of education made specialisation unattractive for career prospects in industry. Many industrial organisations seemed to treat "Human resources" as a commodity to be bought and sold rather than as human individuals. This trend reduced the continuity of staff and the corporate knowledge base that used to be a valuable source of education in the past. Many chemical engineers forsook chemical engineering for careers in general management or in the service industries such as information technology, management consultancy, finance, commerce and insurance.

New industries emerged to manufacture effect-products and knowledge-based products with high values and low volumes that did not initially involve chemical engineering directly. However, most of the major new industries used multi-disciplinary teams in which a chemical engineer provided the process design role.

Technology changed immensely during the last century, especially due to the advances in electronics, communication and information technology. The Internet appeared suddenly and grew in a few years to become a major means of communication and knowledge transmission. The advances in life sciences and biotechnology as a result of the discovery of the structure of DNA and its applications as genetic engineering were also amazing. All of these technologies were initiated and developed by specialists outside chemical engineering. The considerable opportunities for applying chemical engineering in these new technological areas were only limited by the lack of awareness of new industry employers about chemical engineering and by the ability of chemical engineers to spot the opportunities and gain entry. The strong network of industry and academic contacts that drove the early development of chemical engineering was unfortunately not available to take advantage of many of these opportunities.

Society also changed considerably during the last century. Television provided a powerful medium for raising public issues rapidly and effectively. The remoteness of central authorities and government also led to the formation of pressure groups for minority issues. Environmental awareness was raised by such pressure groups to become a major industrial and societal issue. Legislation became a powerful tool for regulating technology and industry. Chemical engineers had to learn how to respond to societal pressures and how to comply with the increasing burden of legislation.

Western society became more concerned with freedom and rights instead of discipline and duties as in past generations. A widespread desire for instant gratification was driven by high expectations advertised through the media. These factors contributed to a reduction in status of teachers, less self-discipline and a lack of commitment to the long-term that meant most of the population was not adequately equipped for a post-industrial, advanced technology society. Coupled with an expansion of university education in non-scientific subjects and restricted spending on scientific education these factors increased the ranks of the population with a distrust of technology and industry. In many countries the student applications for chemical engineering courses declined.

4.3 Chemical Engineering response to changes:

The rapid and accelerating rate of change in the world challenged the fundamental basis of chemical engineering and its very existence as a separate discipline. Chemical engineers, however, proved to be very adaptable and able to take advantage of new opportunities presented by change. Building on the basic chemical engineering science structure and using a holistic approach to process design and problem solving, chemical engineers were very successful in the new industries that emerged at the end of the last millennium. Having contributed significantly to the productivity improvements of the heavy chemical industries to the extent that employment prospects were reduced, chemical engineers sought wider horizons and employment elsewhere. Many moved successfully into industries such as food, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, utilities, electronics, and software. Chemical engineers also succeeded in the service industries, management consultancy, information technology, commerce and banking. The prospects for the future seemed to be unending, provided that both old and new chemical engineers could be educated to meet the challenges. The only restriction appeared to be the declining application rates for chemical engineering degrees in some European countries.

5. Chemical Engineering Education in the last Millennium:

5.1 The development of curricula for first degree chemical engineering:

In order for chemical engineering to adapt to changes without losing its identity, curriculum development aimed to concentrate on the basics of chemical engineering science at first degree level and to enhance holistic or systems thinking skills at first degree level. It was considered practical to divide chemical engineering first degree curricula into the three parts of basic science, chemical engineering core and electives. This division has been applied to many courses in Europe and has allowed different universities and schools to retain their individual education styles and make use of their strong special subjects.

The WPE also suggested a simplified guide for a core curriculum content based on surveys of 21 European chemical engineering schools. The "Core" would represent about 50% of the total curriculum and take about 5 - 6 semesters to deliver. (See Table 1.) Most European universities and schools of chemical engineering require 4 - 5 years of study (8 - 10 semesters). In allowing for this spread the figures in the table have been approximated and do not add up exactly. Safety and environment content has been added to the original list.

The general subject divisions described in Table 1 hide the detailed elements that comprise each subject area. It is also important to note that the time and effort spent on subjects that are integrated into the curriculum, like safety or process control, is difficult to define exactly. The statistics of such integrated subjects often refer only to specific sessions about the subjects and education elsewhere, for example of safety teaching as part of the subject of distillation, is not included.

The development of new subjects such as SHE, environmental science, biotechnology and polymer technology placed considerable pressure on curriculum time allocations. Attempts to include too much new material into curricula led in some cases to excessive workloads for students or to a reduction in content for other subjects.

Table 1. A simplified guide to a chemical engineering first degree curriculum:

Curriculum element Approximate content as
Percentage of a Semester
Basic Science
Computer use
100 - 125
25 - 50
100 - 150
20 - 25
Chemical Engineering Core
Thermodynamics/Physical Chemistry
Fluid Mechanics/Transport Phenomena
Unit Operations
Chemical Reaction Engineering
Plant Design (Including SHE, Economics, Legislation, etc)
Process Dynamics and Control
Chemical Engineering Laboratory
Safety, Health & Environment
50 - 100
25 - 40
40 - 50
20 - 25
50 - 75
20 - 30
20 - 25
25 - 50
10 - 25
In-depth studies of special subjects (For example, Biotechnology)
More thorough application of mathematics to engineering
More thorough application of scientific principles to engineering


The problem of "What to teach?" in some cases led to curriculum overload. This led to the question "What depth to teach?" One practical answer was then to consider subjects in elements that reflected three stages of learning. The first stage to provide a superficial awareness, the second stage to provide an increasing appreciation sufficient to work with subject experts, and the third stage to provide the level of full understanding and expertise. This idea was part of a general approach to teaching chemical engineering outlined in Table 2.

Table 2: Teaching Chemical engineering

What subject? To what depth? When to teach? How to teach?
e.g. Chemistry Awareness At any time  
  Appreciation After awareness  
  In-depth Knowledge After appreciation  

The questions raised are briefly discussed in the following paragraphs.

5.2 What to teach?

The question of what to teach chemical engineering students, or more generally how to educate them, was answered by the design of the curriculum. The ideas presented earlier met with some acceptance in Europe, but each country and culture ultimately decided as they saw fit. There was no global agreement about what should be in the first degree chemical engineering curriculum. However, several organisations attempted to identify key requirements to provide some consistency. The issue of degree equivalence to allow students to exchange between courses in different countries and cultures was debated heatedly.

5.3 What depth to teach?

The depth of subject knowledge and understanding that students were expected to achieve from a chemical engineering education varied from subject to subject depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the educators. The core chemical engineering subjects had to be taught in depth, but some peripheral subjects could have been taught more superficially. The idea of considering three levels proposed earlier may have helped with curriculum design and also have helped to introduce difficult subjects gradually to assist a deeper eventual understanding.

5.4 When to teach?

The timing of subject matter in most chemical engineering curricula was usually a matter of experience. The usual aim was to build on the basic scientific understanding that students gained from secondary education. (If the selection process identified weaknesses in secondary education, then extra time had to be allocated to remedy this). Chemical engineering sciences such as fluid flow, heat and mass transfer were then introduced to enable a lead into unit operation, process control, etc. The chemical engineering mindset then developed during the first two years of the curriculum from a mixture of theoretical and practical work. Unfortunately not all students developed their general understanding at the same time as the subjects appeared in the curriculum. This problem was usually overcome by regular reviews of progress, by tutoring and by practical experience in laboratories, pilot-plants, industrial placements, or group project work.

5.5 How to teach?

The question of how to teach chemical engineering was, and still is, difficult to answer as it is so closely related to the teacher, to the subject matter, to the students and to the teaching environment.

The teacher has an important role to play in developing the interest of the students for the subject, and often may provide a role model. It is essential that the teacher has a mastery of the knowledge to be communicated and can transmit an enthusiasm for the subject. However, short-term arousal of interest should not sacrifice the long-term establishment of interest in the broader sense (Ref. 6). Audio-visual aids, films and other media may catch attention short-term, but can also induce a passivity in students from an entertainment-oriented, spectator culture. The student needs to be given a sense of discovery and an interest in the value of intellectual activity. This is probably best achieved by a combination of teaching and guided practical experience.

The subject matter of chemical engineering is very wide and ranges from objective scientific subjects like fluid mechanics to more abstract topics like human relations and societal values. Most subjects are taught as lectures followed by work on suitable examples or practical experiments. In chemical engineering, guided practical experience is widely used to develop an overall grasp of the discipline and to learn how to approach problems holistically.

The students of chemical engineering are selected for a university education by various means depending on the country where they were born. They will have chosen chemical engineering and might be expected to have a reasonable interest in the subject. In fact, many new chemical engineering students are not aware of what the subject entails due to poor preparation in secondary education and may drop out or have to re-sit assessments as a consequence. Luckily, most chemical engineering students are highly motivated and keen to learn. The first year of a chemical engineering course may, however, present some surprises as students learn to balance their expectations with reality. This may explain the level of course assessment re-sits that ranges in Europe from zero to as much as 45% in the first year.

The teaching environment of chemical engineering varies from the lecture theatre with classes of 30-50 students, to work in small groups or under tuition in laboratories or pilot plant. It is usual for chemical engineering students to work on tutored projects that are performed in the industrial environment.

5.6 What teaching aids to use?

There are many aids to teaching available that can be categorised as follows (Ref. 6):

  1. Vicarious experience: Videos, films, sound recordings, books, etc. (Used to generate awareness and for short term arousal during long teaching sessions)
  2. Models: Laboratory experiments, demonstrations, case studies, project work, computerised models, sequenced exercises, examples, etc. (Widely used to provide insight and understanding of deeper knowledge. Students can also be encouraged to generate their own material and to teach each other.)
  3. Dramatisations: Films, novels, role-playing, etc. (Used to provide insight into subjective issues and to develop mindset.)
  4. Automatic teaching devices: Programmed learning modules, computerised teaching machines, etc. (These are best used for routine knowledge and procedures, but can be used to develop awareness.)

These aids are used to suit the subject matter, the level of learning of the students and the teaching environment. Table 3 provides examples of how these might be used for particular subjects:

Table 3. Examples of teaching aids for chemical engineering.


1. Vicarious

2. Models

3. Dramatisations

4. Automatic teaching devices


Videos, books Examples,
Computer models
- -
Distillation Videos, books Examples,
Computer models
- -
Economics Videos, films, books Case studies, Examples,
Computer models
- Programmed learning
Flowsheeting Books Examples,
Computer models
- -
Process Design Books Project work - -
SHE Videos, films, books Case studies, project work Role playing Programmed learning
Legislation Books Case studies - -
Human relations Videos, films, books Case studies Role playing -

6. Current International Trends in Chemical Engineering Education

6.1 Pressures for change

Current international trends in chemical engineering education continue to be driven by the same industrial, technological and societal pressures for change as in the last millennium. The movement of chemical engineering away from commodity chemicals towards effect-based chemical products has accelerated. Although chemical engineers can still command very good salaries, their workloads and stress levels have increased considerably due to downsizing and company mergers. The rapid growth of information technology and electronic communications is changing attitudes to education and working practices. Changes in working practices, increased mobility and communications and new branches of chemical engineering science are additional pressures on chemical engineering education. The discipline is ripe for re-invention to take advantage of the new opportunities available. These pressures for change particularly affect university education, personal career development and life-long education. These are briefly explained in the following paragraphs.

6.2 Chemical engineering university education

In some countries, the pressure on resources for tertiary education, the unpopularity of science and technology, and job insecurity in industry has contributed to a decline in student applications for chemical engineering courses. Learning from industrial mergers, some universities have merged chemical engineering departments with allied disciplines to maintain financial viability. There is concern that this trend could lead to the disappearance of chemical engineering as a separate discipline.

The Internet provides another opportunity for cutting the cost of university education. The benefits to the students, who can be educated anywhere in the world, and for the university in terms of lower overheads are considerable. Although practical experience is essential for a proper understanding of chemical engineering, the discipline relies increasingly on computerised software that could be accessed via the Internet. It is difficult to predict how the potential availability of foundation degree courses on the Internet will affect students who aspire to become chemical engineers. In addition, "Education for all" over the Internet and "Open universities" will have considerable impact on the roles and careers of university staff. University chemical engineering departments who can take advantage of Internet trends are more likely to survive than those that ignore them.

6.3 Personal career development

The pressures on individual chemical engineers caused by rapid industrial, technological and societal change make personal career planning difficult. Mergers and acquisitions have made long-term job security a thing of the past, particularly for technical staff such as chemical engineers. Many contractors and industrial employers do not provide specialist career development because they expect chemical engineers to have sufficient technical knowledge and experience already. However, they do provide good opportunities for the development of personal skills and competencies that are of benefit to their organisations. The following example, based on the pharmaceutical industry, lists the typical skills and competencies valued:

Job-related Skills:

  • Team-working
  • Communication
  • Leadership

Competencies (How tasks are done):

  • Holistic thinking
  • Influencing
  • Self-management
  • People management
  • Achievement of objectives

Technical knowledge (Assumed present):

  • Chemical engineering, batch processing, particle technology, SHE, QA
  • Organic chemistry, biotechnology, biochemistry, microbiology, pharmacy
  • Systems engineering, production engineering, control systems

It is essential that each chemical engineer manages his or her career development personally by careful planning, by keeping aware of suitable career opportunities, and by being able to change employment when such opportunities occur. There is a trend for universities to play a more prominent part in such career planning, starting from graduation and continuing with further education. In addition, there is a trend for first degree chemical engineering courses to provide opportunities for students to acquire as many of these skills and competencies as possible prior to graduation.

6.4 Life-long learning

Chemical engineering education does not stop after graduation. To survive in employment it is essential to keep up with constant change. It has been estimated that the half-life of chemical engineering knowledge is between 4 and 5 years (Refs.11 & 12). This means that all chemical engineers employed as chemical engineers must spend at least 10% of their time in continuing education to avoid obsolescence and to keep abreast of new technology. Life-long learning is essential for chemical engineers and chemical engineering education. This has been recognised by many organisations that have developed several forms of part-time education and in-house courses, examples of which are described in Table 4.

Table 4. Examples of different forms of continuing education

Delivery Method








Formal courses


Engineers between jobs.
Engineers in employment.

e.g.MSc, Diplomas,etc.

Formal courses
(Part-time modular)


Engineers in employment

e.g.MSc, Diplomas,etc.

Conferences and seminars

Professional organisations.
Commercial organisers

Engineers in employment

Technology, etc. updating


Professional organisations

Engineers between jobs.
Engineers in employment

Technology, etc. updating

Distance learning

Professional organisations

Engineers between jobs.
Engineers in employment

e.g.MSc, Diplomas,etc.

Computer-based learning

Specialist training agents

Industrial employers

Task orientated

In-House courses

Industrial employers

Engineers in employment

Personal skills and competencies

On-the-job training

Industrial employers

Engineers in employment

Task orientated

Private study

Professional organisations

All engineers

Personal career plans

Continuing education by formal courses, workshops and seminars, private study or "On-the-job" training is well established in most countries. However, many employers are reluctant to educate staff who may subsequently leave their employ. This means that employers may only provide "On-the-job" training to meet the direct needs of the task in hand, with little provision for long-term education. This trend may cause a gap between individual aspirations and industrial objectives. Many chemical engineers work for contractors, who provide very little long-term education. This has prompted universities and professional organisations to provide continuing education that is affordable and accessible to chemical engineers in productive employment or between jobs. The range of subjects that can be taught, at masters level and below, by modular part-time courses is growing rapidly to meet the increasing demand. The availability of courses provided over the Internet, mentioned previously, is also expected to grow considerably.

At the start of the education life-cycle, the chemical engineering profession must adopt a life-long learning approach to pre-university education if the future supply of engineers is to be continued. The need to inform children in primary and secondary education about the opportunities and value of chemical engineering has already been identified.

6.5 International mobility

The ease and speed of modern air travel has enabled chemical engineers to become very mobile internationally. Chemical engineers are no longer constrained to their motherland and may work anywhere in the world. Rapid and effective telecommunications also make it possible for chemical engineers to work from any location linked to the telephone system without the need to travel. The development of e-mail and video-conferencing is certain to reduce the need for business travel in the future. The mobility and accessibility of chemical engineers will have increasingly significant impact on chemical engineering resources management. If there is a shortage of chemical engineers in one country, this can be filled from the international pool.

An important outcome of the international mobility of chemical engineers is the need for recognisable qualifications. There is a trend for chemical engineering students to seek qualifications that are accepted internationally. At the same time, employers require some evidence of satisfactory chemical engineering knowledge and competence from prospective employees. There is a growing need for internationally accepted standards of chemical engineering education to meet these needs.

6.6 Product or formulation engineering

Many chemical engineers now work in industries outside the heavy chemical industry, where attention to the final product properties is necessary at all process stages. The scale of scrutiny needed to obtain a holistic process design in such industries can range from microscopic to macroscopic, from molecules to global markets. In particular, product formulation is a key process for effect-chemicals and consumer products that has attracted the interest of chemical engineers. The concept of "Product Engineering" or "Formulation Engineering" is thus gaining more attention (Refs. 13, 14, 15 & 16). Although the concept stresses the importance of product design, it emphasises the value of the holistic approach to process design that is the core of chemical engineering. As such, it does not distract from the chemical engineering discipline even though it may eventually become a separate subject within the discipline. Several university chemical engineering departments have recently developed their curricula to include modules or electives to educate students about the product/process interface. It is certain that this branch of chemical engineering will grow and provide many opportunities for the future.

6.7 Development of sustainable technologies

The global concern for the environment has motivated many scientists and engineers to seek solutions to the planetary problems due to overpopulation and industrialisation. Although pressure groups and politicians have raised the problem to public attention, the solution will require more than media hype and it will need science and engineering, particularly chemical engineering, to provide practical solutions. There is a trend for chemical engineers to view the development of sustainable technologies as crucial to the future of the chemical engineering discipline. The chemistry and biochemistry disciplines have already taken initiatives that will impact on future chemical engineering contributions (Ref 17).

The main chemical engineering contribution will be the holistic approach to process design and the application of chemical engineering science. Sustainability requires process designers to take a global viewpoint and to consider interactions across the many diverse areas of the planetary problem.

The considerable experience and knowledge already to hand in the chemical engineering concepts of "Inherent Safety" and "Safety-Conscious Process Design" (Ref.18) can be used on the problems of sustainability. These concepts are key parts of the chemical engineering mindset. It thus follows that chemical engineering education can now build on these and add sustainable technology to the mindset by suitable development of the chemical engineering curriculum.

7. Conclusions

7.1 Chemical engineering provides a distinctive contribution to the needs of humanity that is different from other scientific and engineering disciplines.

7.2 The Chemical Engineering discipline must adapt continuously to survive and to retain its identity in the next millennium.

7.3 Effective education is essential for chemical engineers to survive in productive employment in the next millennium.

  • The core content of chemical engineering curricula together with relevant electives at first degree level must equip chemical engineers to adapt to changes during their careers.
  • Holistic thinking is essential for effective process and product design.
  • Chemical engineers must plan their careers around life-long education in order to cope with the technological and societal changes that they will encounter.
  • There is a need for internationally recognised standards for chemical engineering education.
  • The potential of education over the Internet needs to be explored by those responsible for current chemical engineering education systems.

7.4 The range of applications of chemical engineering will continue to grow.

  • Biotechnology and Life Sciences applications will continue to increase.
  • Product or Formulation engineering is expected to emerge as a new branch of chemical engineering.
  • The development of sustainable technologies will become a key branch of chemical engineering.

7.5 Chemical engineering is a discipline that is now ripe for re-invention.

8. Acknowledgements

The author gratefully acknowledges the help and support of the members of the EFCE Working Party Education in writing this paper.

9. References

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