The dreaded second year. Everything counts now, no slip-ups, full steam ahead because every percentage of every credit now added up towards that final degree grade. No longer could I shrug off the odd lab report because “I can’t be bothered” or slack off on that piece of coursework that seemed to drag on for longer than its 3-week time frame for completion. Course-wise, the first year of my chemical engineering course is more or less designed to introduce and settle you into your degree, and the second year is meant to test your mettle.
It didn’t help that once we started COVID-19 transmission rates shot up, mainly due to students heading back to school and university, leaving the government no choice but to introduce new social distancing restrictions. This of course meant the majority of our learning had to be done online with some “In-person Tutorials” or IPTs for short, which were some semblance to lectures.
Process Dynamics, Modelling and Control (PDMC)Part 1:
As stated in the name, the first half of the PDMC entailed us learning how to use mathematical concepts to build models of various chemical engineering processes on the MATLAB software platform. I had never had any experience of serious coding before and had a torrid time initially. I remember it starting off quite simple, with straightforward calculations and understanding the layout and syntax.
Next, the content was running at full pelt, and I was facing problem sheets that required me to model sections of various chemical engineering processes and carry out sensitivity analyses to optimise them. My natural response to this sudden increase in difficulty was of course… to put it off entirely, this was further compounded by my general state of lethargy at the time, to my detriment.
After consolidation week the work inevitably piled up and we were told the coursework assessment release was imminent. I had competing priorities at the time and ultimately made the decision to focus on those with the nearest deadlines, one of them being the PDMC coursework assessment.
So, I literally learned to program on the fly and was rather fortunate to cover the content in time to attempt the coursework. It’s amazing how efficient you become once you’ve got an assessment looming over your head. All that mental rigour and deliberate practice ultimately made me come to like process modelling, I found it intellectually stimulating and came to realise that this was my first real “engineering experience”.
Today, the vast majority of engineering projects are automated, modelled and controlled electronically. The PDMC unit teaches students the mathematical techniques required to model the engineering concepts you’d learn in the chemical engineering principles 2, fascinating stuff.
Chemical Engineering Principles 2:
This unit builds on the content we were taught in our first year while introducing new engineering process topics. The unit is designed to give as comprehensive an overview of chemical/biochemical processes as possible. With such a wide net cast, you’ll naturally end up being more interested in some topics over others.
As someone who avoided taking biology in A-levels like the plague, I initially winced at the sight of bioreaction engineering and had a harder time grasping the content there but worked my way through it. I enjoyed multiphase separation the most, I found the lecturer’s teaching style to be engaging and I lived for those Kahoot revision quizzes at the start of those lessons.
Chemical Engineering Skills and Practice 2:
This unit integrates the content taught in chemical engineering principles and PDMC and aims to consolidate the knowledge gained in those units through lab experiments and design projects. Depending on the type of person you are, this can be your most enjoyable or most loathsome unit. For me, it was the latter.
In my first year, the whole concept of lab reports was entirely new to me. Yes, I had done some experiments during my A-Levels but those were hand-written, and all calculations were done by hand. It was a steep learning curve having to use Excel and I’m ashamed to say I was at best a novice at writing technical reports on Word in my first year simply because I didn’t take them seriously at the time.
In the summer holidays, I had taken online courses in Microsoft Excel and Word to build my skills and started the semester determined to improve my lab report skills. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time, I only had 2 experiments take place in person all year long and had to write lab reports on the other experiments based on data that had been collected prior. Despite the setback, I was pleased with my report-writing improvement, those Excel and Word courses definitely came in handy.
Safety, Ethics & Hazard Operability (HAZOP): Where we learnt that many a process accident would have been prevented had engineers and management developed and adhered to a code of ethics and taken the time to develop and stick to robust safety protocols.
I’ll stop myself from regurgitating my lecture notes, but for any chemical engineering student keen on embarking on a technical career, knowledge of safety, ethics and HAZOP is of paramount importance. We focused on the Bhopal disaster and systematically went through the human and mechanical failures that caused an engineering disaster whose effects still reverberate to this day.
In early December we had our safety, ethics & HAZOP online assessment, which was a harrowing time-pressured experience. We wrapped up the semester and went home for Christmas break, which, come to think of it, never really turns out to be a break. There’s always an assessment to complete over the break/ exam looming around the corner. But anyhow, I returned in early January to see this:
…going on across the pond. The government eventually slapped on new COVID restrictions, and we saw the nation go into a third national lockdown with no end date due to the newly discovered Delta variant, squashing everyone’s hopes of 2021 starting right. Not that Boris & co were adhering to the rules at the time as we would eventually find out.
Next up was our PDMC modelling coursework. I’d like to think at this point in time I had figured modelling and programming on MATLAB out and thought I was incredibly intelligent for having cranked out over 400 lines of code, but in hindsight (as I write this after finishing my 3rd year) I hadn’t even scratched the surface. Still felt good about my efforts though. We had to model a section of a chemical process that recycled waste from a distillery and various outcomes of a chemical reaction.
Last up was our principles coursework. As I mentioned above, earlier in the semester I had been lethargic and sort of took my time adjusting to online learning. This meant that I had fallen behind (yet again) and had to prioritise the assessments with the most imminent deadlines. That meant pushing aside my ChemEng principles lectures and focusing on PDMC and safety lectures. That had worked just fine up until I submitted my PDMC coursework in early January and realised, wide-eyed I might add, the enormity of the task ahead of me in terms of studying for my principles coursework which ran in the final week of January. And so began the most intense 2-week period of my life up until that point.
I must’ve micro-managed my time to the milli-second then because I don’t remember speaking to anyone aside from my parents on the phone. And of course, the reality of last-minute studying isn’t pretty either, listening to lectures at that point would’ve been ineffective, so I worked backwards and used problem sheets and their solutions to identify the topics I was weak at and then focused on them. This meant I had many blind spots but heck, it’s better than not knowing anything at all.
In the end, the coursework submission came right down to the wire. It would’ve been the first time I ever worked more than 24 hours straight, first answering the questions, and then typing them up in a presentable manner. Don’t worry, I must’ve slept for two days straight afterwards to make for it. Then it was inter-semester break which started with heavy snowfall and gave us scenes like this:
The snow brought just about everyone out that day as if we all needed a breath of fresh air after being cooped up for months due to COVID restrictions. Cue the building of snowmen (and snow ducks), families tobogganing on hills; I even saw someone with skis? The perfect way to end the first half of my second year.
On to semester 2…