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Photos from CBE virtual summer lab
October 5, 2020

Going the distance: CBE’s Summer Lab doesn’t miss a beat in virtual setting

Written By: Jason Daley

For many students participating in CBE 424, the capstone course for undergraduates in UW-Madison’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering known to most as “summer lab,” it’s their chance put everything they’ve learned over the last few years together. The intensive course is a taste of life as a chemical engineer in which students work full-time in a laboratory performing experiments and running pilot-scale industrial equipment like distillation columns and heat exchangers.

But as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic set in during spring 2020, students and faculty began to wonder if they would be able to pull off the chemical engineering “rite of passage” that has run every summer since 1948.

Faculty Associate Jim Miller, director of the second session of 2020 summer lab, says Professors Thatcher Root and Dan Klingenberg lead a team of faculty, academic staff and department administrators that began putting together contingency plans in February, as COVID-19 became more widespread.

 Jim Miller
Jim Miller

At first, they believed they would have to cancel summer lab’s overseas sessions in Spain, China, Hong Kong and Ireland and teach all students in Madison. They began searching for more lab space to accommodate over 60 students in the first session, double the usual number.

But, in early April, the University announced that all summer classes would be converted to distance education—meaning that summer lab, too, would have to go virtual. That, however, was a big challenge.

Typically, students work 40 hours per week for five weeks during the course, conducting experiments in a large basement lab in Engineering Hall. They do group “formal” experiments on pilot scale chemical process equipment and, in teams of two, perform a series of self-directed “informal” experiments. Students then spend evenings and weekends writing up technical reports on those experiments. To support their work, students have access to a stock room full of equipment and to an analytical lab with gear like gas chromatographs.

To adapt for the informal experiments, the summer lab team decided it would focus virtual sessions on something almost everyone has: a kitchen. “What the instructional staff did over the course of March and April,” Miller says, “is brainstorm what we would put into a banker’s box to help transform a kitchen into a lab.”

CBE staff filled up more than 100 boxes full of goodies for their kitchen laboratories, including thermocouples, a scale, a pH meter, a total dissolved solids meter, activated charcoal, sand, coffee filters, and other items that students might need.

Working in teams, students designed and performed a variety of experiments. Many chose food-science based experiments, working with cookies and cupcakes, sweet potatoes, orange juice and other items they could grab or order from the grocery store.

“What was really cool is that our students did some really good science,” says Miller. “There were a number of different, inventive and scientifically rich experiments.”

One team built a sophisticated heat exchanger using plastic bottles and PVC tubing included in their box. Others examined heat transport by baking sweet potatoes. One examined the effects of ingredient changes on the browning, height, volume and density of sugar cookies; they used their cell-phone cameras and apps available online to evaluate cookie color. Another team figured out how to mimic a Rockwell hardness tester using a drill bit, a small basket and some quarters.

For the formal experiments, students were presented real data sets from previous summer lab sessions, including glitches and imperfect results that they were asked to analyze and write up in technical reports. In all, students report working the same long, intense hours as previous in-person summer labs.

For instructional staff, working remotely was even a little more intense than usual. They were on call 24/7, answering emails and messages, helping students to work through various issues on top of the regular load of grading technical write-ups.

Maggie Pozorski, who participated in the second session of 2020, tested the freezing point of water using various salt types and concentrations and created a plug flow reactor using tubing and a drying rack in her kitchen. She says the staff did a great job adapting to the circumstances.

“I thought the professors knocked it out of the park under the online conditions presented to them. They were always available and willing to meet with students to help us with formal and informal labs,” she says. “Although this lab had a lot of late nights and stressful moments, I think it was a great last ‘hoorah’ for the students in CBE program and really allowed us to use all the information we learned over the past four years. I really appreciated the class and am proud of what we were able to accomplish in the online setting.”

Miller thinks the class of 2020 learned different but no less valuable lessons from Summer Lab than previous sessions, in particular how to collaborate online. “Engineers of the future are going to have to do more of this, especially as the companies they’ll be working for find out how well it works,” he says.

Sahana Walter, who participated in the first session of 2020 summer lab agrees. “I think we got a different set of skills than previous graduating classes,” she says. “But that’s the heart of engineering. Not everything in life is ideal and you have to make do with the resources you’re given.”