If you imagine yourself as a chemical engineer, working in a laboratory to develop new chemical processes, substances or equipment, you need to be prepared for a rigorous engineering curriculum. Before you can become a chemical engineer, you must complete a great deal of studies in science, math and engineering design.
Science and Math Classes for Chemical Engineers
Science and mathematical theories are the foundation of an engineer’s education. Without knowing these concepts, you couldn’t use them in developing equipment, components, systems and processes for use in the real world. It is so important for students of any engineering discipline to study basic science and college-level mathematics that the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) requires accredited programs to include at least one full year of studies in these subjects.
It comes as no surprise that aspiring chemical engineers need to take laboratory classes in chemistry, including some advanced coursework. What might surprise you is the necessity of taking courses in physics and biology, as well. Chemical engineers use all of these disciplines of science as they work to develop solutions to problems in several distinct fields, from food to fuel and from clothing to electronics. The basic science coursework required for a chemical engineering program might include general and organic chemistry at multiple levels of difficulty as well as physics for engineers and principles of biology. Math classes for aspiring chemical engineers might include at least two levels of calculus, if not more, and coursework in linear differential equations.
The math and basic science component of your curriculum will typically make up one-fourth of your undergraduate studies in an accredited engineering program.
Chemical Engineering Core Curriculum
The part of your education that you’re most looking forward to is probably the engineering science and engineering design coursework. In an ABET-accredited program, these studies make up at least one and a half years of your undergraduate curriculum. These classes are the ones that teach students how to apply their knowledge of science and math to developing engineering solutions.
Students of chemical engineering take major coursework in subjects such as heat and mass transfer, molecular and cell biology as it pertains to engineering, kinetics and reactor engineering, phase equilibrium and staged separations, dynamics and control of chemical and biological processes and process economics, design and evaluation. A chemical engineering isn’t limited to lecture courses in a traditional classroom. Some of the most important classes you may take include coursework in chemical engineering laboratory and chemical engineering design projects.
Often, students can use their technical electives, courses that they get to choose from an approved list of technical subject matter, to delve more deeply into an area of concentration. Popular academic concentrations for chemical engineering students include chemical process engineering, bioengineering, nanotechnology and molecular engineering, environmental engineering and sustainability, polymer science and engineering and design.
By the time chemical engineering students complete their program of study, they should know how to analyze, control, and design chemical, physical and biological processes, according to ABET.
Gaining Real-World Experience in Chemical Engineering
The goal of an engineering education isn’t learning for the sheer sake of attaining knowledge, though many engineers do have a natural curiosity about the world. Rather, the purpose of taking all of those science and math classes is to learn the concepts that can be applied to solving real problems. In chemical engineering as well as in other disciplines of engineering, the best way to develop these skills is to take advantage of opportunities to do hands-on engineering work.
One form of engineering experience is built into your curriculum already. ABET-accredited engineering programs require students to complete some form of senior design project or capstone class in which they design a solution to a problem under constraints that mimic that of the real world. For chemical engineering students, these design projects can range from establishing processes to mass manufacture vaccines to developing new fuel cells.
Your design experience can certainly help you build up your skills and your resumé and give you a project you can talk about when you interview for your first engineering job. However, many students find a great deal of value in gaining more experience through an internship or cooperative program. These opportunities don’t just mimic real-world problems and scenarios but allow for actual training in those settings as well as networking opportunities.
Internships and cooperative programs differ in the extent and length of training. Co-op programs are full-time paid positions that last for more than one term. Internships are shorter and may be part-time or unpaid.