The life of a chemical engineering student through the years
By Freya, fourth year, MEng (Hons) Chemical Engineering
Before starting university, I had no idea what engineering students did all day! Or even that their day-to-day activities might vary throughout the years.
So now, as a fourth year, I have decided to write a short post outlining the typical activities of a chemical engineering student for each year, and the differences between them.
The workload during first year is very different to later years. First year is set up to level the playing field for different students, by teaching the fundamental knowledge and concepts that engineers need, especially in maths and chemistry.
The teaching style is mostly lectures, but you won’t have as many classes as in later years. Attending all the lectures means that you will meet other engineers from your discipline as well as make friends across other disciplines. These friendships couldn’t be more important in getting you through your degree for morale as well as academic support.
EngPALS is a programme that can also be incredibly useful for first years. It is a peer-assisted learning scheme, which means that sessions are run by students in later years rather than academic staff. The environment of these is much more relaxed than lectures or tutorials and can be a great opportunity to ask questions.
In first year, the lower ‘contact hours’ (e.g. the time you spend learning directly from academic staff) may mean you have much more free time than you are used to!
Some of this will, of course, be used for studying but coming to university really opens avenues to try something new. It is key to keep a balance between your studies and your personal life.
The University has a wide range of sporting activities, for example, I was part of the sailing club, which is a great way to spend some time outside and interact with other people. If sports aren’t your thing, there is a wide range of other societies where you can meet people who share similar interests.
Starting second year was a very exciting time for me. It was when I started to feel like a real engineering student.
We took a wide variety of classes covering the pillars of chemical engineering, such as thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, chemistry and process calculations.
This year was very theory-heavy, meaning lots of lectures, lots of seminars, and lots of exams.
There were also labs in which you can see the theory you have spent so long learning in practice. This year is fundamental in your studies as a chemical engineer, as the theory you learn here underpins everything that comes later.
Third year was when I really started to feel like I was a chemical engineer. Now that you know the basics, the classes you take are more focused on chemical engineering and you begin to apply your knowledge to small design projects.
In these projects, you will also learn how to use process simulation software which can really help your understanding and give you a skill you will likely use when you graduate. Third year lab is also great fun! You will spend five days in the lab, spread out across the year.
It’s great because it’s really hands-on and gives physical meaning to the principles you have been learning. You will also get the opportunity to present your lab results in a few talks throughout the year.
I am taking Design Projects 4, which is currently worth a large portion of fourth year. As such we spend a lot of the time in group project meetings, sometimes with our supervisor, making decisions and working together to produce a design that meets the requirements of our industry sponsor.
This is intended to prepare you for what life as a chemical engineer, in a graduate role and beyond, will be like.
Alongside this design project, we continue to take classes to broaden our knowledge of the chemical engineering discipline. For the first time, you get the option to pick some classes which interest you the most.
The classes this year are both fundamental aspects of chemical engineering, and classes that broaden your horizons.
For example, core classes this year were things like Fluid Mechanics or Chemical Engineering Design: Synthesis and Economics, but for my optional courses, I chose Nanomaterials in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, and Gas Separation Using Membranes.
Looking forward to fifth year…
Next year, things will change as I move on to do my master’s project. This is an opportunity to broaden our knowledge in a more specialist area and follow our interests. As chemical engineers, we have the option to complete this in either industry or academia, either in the UK or abroad.
As for myself, I will be doing a research project on gas separation using membranes at the University of Bologna, Italy and I cannot wait!