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‘Real-World’ Sabbatical Benefits Teachers, Future Students

“Wait until you get to the real world” is an adage often used in reference to the life of college students, but how does this apply to the faculty who teach those students?

For the world of chemistry, the environment in an academic lab is certainly very different from that of an industrial lab, yet a good many undergraduate chemistry majors will find themselves in that “real world” lab for their first job. In my own transition from undergrad, to grad school, and then to teaching, I never had the opportunity to do chemistry outside of the academic environment, so did not have any “real world” experience to share with students who would be starting an industrial job.

As I considered options for a sabbatical leave, I began to explore ways in which I could learn more about chemistry outside of the academic setting and then bring that experience back to my teaching. Now in my fifth sabbatical leave, I can look back and see how my industrial appointments have helped shape my career and in turn how that has impacted the experience of my students.

I gave a presentation entitled, “Keep it Real – Take a Sabbatical: Insights to an Effective Academic-Industrial Partnership,” here at the Michigan State University Bioeconomy Institute in January 2016 to share the planning it takes to make this happen, some of the varied chemistry I learned, along with the positive outcomes for the students, the college and the laboratories where I spent my sabbaticals.

In May 2016, I took the weeklong, hands-on, chemical process scale-up workshop “From Lab Bench to Pilot Plant,” which is taught at the MSU Bioeconomy Institute every year by the operations team.

While I have participated in and taught many hands-on workshops, the scale and scope of this workshop were quite different. The concept of adding a reactant using a graduated cylinder in the academic lab, versus adding a 55-gallon drum of reactant in the plant took on real meaning after actually transferring a drum of reagent into a 4000L reactor.

Though the specific chemical goal was to produce biodiesel from soybean oil, the workshop covered a wide range of topics such as the biodiesel market, environmental control, plant equipment and operations, process safety management, preparation of a batch record, product costing, materials management and process optimization.

What was surprising was the extent to which the participants actually carried out the various operations (under guidance from the highly skilled operators) such as connecting hoses, opening and closing an array of valves in order to pull a vacuum, pressurize the tank or transfer material to a waste tank, setting the bolts on a manhole cover, adding a reagent to and removing product from the reactor, taking samples from the waste tank, and carefully watching the sight glass while cutting the water wash layer from the biodiesel product.

I was also surprised by the scale of the heat transfer media (HTM) system used to both heat and cool the reactors throughout the plant. A number of other things about this experience impressed me:

  • It was clear that safety is the top priority in the plant. We heard about safety every day, ranging from knowledge of the chemicals and reactions to the operation and maintenance of the equipment.
  • The writing of the batch record and the costing exercise to determine if we could make a profit both brought home the complexity of these processes.
  • The role of documentation and double-checking everything that was done in the process shows the importance of attention to detail and record keeping. As was mentioned several times, “If something was not written down, it did not happen.” Keeping a good lab notebook is a challenge for many students, but the essential role of complete and accurate documentation in the laboratory is something that I can further emphasize in my teaching.

The workshop provided me with a greater appreciation of how the basic bench-top chemistry we teach in our academic laboratories is put into practice at the industrial level. When I talk with students who are looking at a chemistry-related career, I can inform them that it can be more than test tubes, beakers and round bottom flasks.

In addition to the actual chemical transformations that take place in the plant, a chemistry background is important for other aspects of the manufacturing process such as environmental control, process safety management and product costing. The importance of teamwork and communication in the successful operation of the plant at all levels was highly evident, such that these skills need to included along with the chemical knowledge and laboratory operations that are taught in the academic labs.

Michael Seymour is a professor, Department of Chemistry, Hope College, and Visiting Researcher, Michigan State University Bioeconomy Institute. He received his B.A. in chemistry from St. John’s University (Collegeville, MN) in 1972 and his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Arizona in 1978. He started teaching at Hope College in 1978 where he is currently a professor of chemistry. His research interests have generally been in the area of environmental chemistry and in the use of computers in the teaching laboratories. Over the years Dr. Seymour has also been active in the area of chemical outreach in the area K-8 school programs and was chair of the Hope Chemistry Department for 10 years.