College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Chemical engineering students immerse themselves in laboratory work and Spanish culture

With a variety of study abroad opportunities for students cropping up around the nation, one course in the chemical and biological engineering (CBE) department at Iowa State has set itself apart from the rest. The International Summer Course in Chemical Engineering, or ISCChE, not only provides students the chance to venture abroad, but also strengthens their knowledge of chemical engineering through intensive lab work in a new environment.

Lab Partners Nikhil Shah and Matt Ellis
Lab partners Nikhil Shah and Matt Ellis

For each of the past 12 summers, ISCChE has offered a group of Iowa State chemical engineering juniors the option to take their unit operations laboratory course at the University of Oviedo in Spain. While there, students are taught at the Facultad de Quimica, or the university’s College of Chemistry.

The Iowa State students combine with 14 students from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and spend five weeks completing a four-credit lab and report-writing course. Upon completion, they fulfill their major requirements for both ChemE 325 and 426.

“I tell the students before they go that it’s the toughest job they’ll ever love,” says Kenneth Jolls, CBE professor emeritus and Iowa State representative for ISCChE.

The course consists of advanced and difficult lab work, technical report writing, chemical plant trips, cultural experiences, as well as some fun. But accomplishing so much in a short period of time requires a very demanding schedule. Students perform ten experiments, one every two days, attempting to determine the transfer of matter and chemical reactions in an industry.

“The most difficult part of the experience was without a doubt the coursework itself,” says Nikhil Shah, a senior in chemical engineering. “Being immersed in foreign languages and diverse cultures was a relative walk in the park when compared to the laboratory reports.”

The students worked in pairs to perform experiments, with each person writing nine, standard, industrial-style lab reports and also giving an oral presentation at the end of the five weeks. Students performed experiments on electrodialysis, reverse osmosis, heat exchangers, and continuous stirred-tank reactors, just to name a few.

Eric Grinde, Erin Claeys, and Nikhil Shah in Ibiza, Spain
Eric Grinde, Erin Claeys, and Nikhil Shah in Ibiza, Spain

“I really enjoyed working on the distillation experiment with Professor Susana Luque from the University of Oviedo,” says Erin Claeys, senior in chemical and biological engineering. “It’s always great to meet other women in chemical engineering, and Susana is a great teacher. I also personally find distillation to be very interesting.”

Students also went on cultural visits and a two-day bus trip that included a tour of a chemical plant and a day and a half of sightseeing and fun. Even after these offsite trips, students had to write graded reports about their experiences.

According to Jolls, this year’s cohort of Iowa State students performed better than ever before, staying up late into the night, writing lab reports that could be up to 30 pages in length to describe just one of the experiments they completed during the five weeks.

“It was rare that anybody was in bed before midnight, and it was common to see multiple people in the study room at 3, 4, or even 5 in the morning completing reports,” Shah explains. “A few of us, myself included, pulled our first school-related all-nighter during the program.”

Their professor wasn’t the only one to recognize the students for their hard work and dedication—the class also received some publicity from a

Kenneth Jolls and ISCChE students
Kenneth Jolls and Iowa State ISCChE students at farewell banquet

local Spanish newspaper, La Nueva Espana, describing the unique program and highlighting some experiments the students performed.

In the years to come, Jolls will continue teaching the course, growing the program and strengthening ties with the University of Oviedo.

“I think the main benefit of this program is that the students have the opportunity to do the same unit operations lab work as they do at Iowa State, but in a completely Spanish environment,” says Jolls. “The students are exposed to culture, have access to optional Spanish language instruction, and get to experience the local chemical industry in a totally different setting. It’s a truly one-of-a-kind experience.”