An opportunity for reform: A new 100-unit chemical engineering major

Opinion by Caroline Kim
June 30, 2020, 7:50 a.m.

At Stanford, students can study abroad, conduct world-class research, pursue multiple intellectual passions — a never-ending list. However, not all students come to Stanford with the same opportunities, and the large variation in units for different majors only exacerbates this disparity, preventing some students from enjoying all that Stanford has to offer. The Faculty Senate’s vote to limit the major to 60 to 100 units that attempts to address this disparity will significantly affect chemical engineering, drawing mixed opinions from students and faculty.

The current unit cap as outlined by the Stanford Bulletin requires all majors to “constitute at least one-third of a student’s program (55-65 units) . . . [and] no more than two-thirds of a student’s program (115-125 units).”

Therefore, a major like chemical engineering (ChemE) that is at the existing unit limit faces the challenge of significantly reducing its unit requirements. In the 2018-19 academic year, the major was between 120 and 130 units. Starting this academic year, the major is no longer ABET-accredited, a decision motivated in part by a desire to increase curriculum flexibility, according to an email sent by then-ChemE Chair Eric Shaqfeh in November 2017. The 2019-20 major is between 112 and 126 units, still well over the new 100-unit cap.

The current major

One of the reasons why ChemE has a high unit count is because of its versatility. In an interview, Chair of the ChemE Undergraduate Committee Andrew Spakowitz describes the interdisciplinary ChemE skillset as “a really solid foundation not only in chemistry and mathematics but also in physics, in biology as well as the core subjects of chemical engineering . . . kinetics, thermodynamics and transport.”

The rather nebulous definition of ChemE as a discipline allows its students to pursue a wide range of postgraduate paths, including graduate school, pharmaceuticals, chemical manufacturing, consulting and finance. 

ChemE’s rigor also instills students with skills to do anything. Archana Verma ’21 appreciates how “ChemE teaches you how to take something absolutely ridiculous and scary-looking and potentially unknown and systematically break it down.” Sela Berenblum ’20 spoke on the growth of her own confidence to solve any problem, challenge or adversity in her life.

Reasons for reform

Despite its broad applicability, however, the major needs reform. Eric Mason ’20 acknowledged that the major required mastering the fundamentals of math and science. However, as a FLI student, he struggled because he did not have AP credits to skip any prerequisite classes. His schedule became unmanageable as he got to advanced classes that are offered only once a year.  

“There’s a quarter where I thought it was all over . . . Chem 131, Chem 181, Chem 173, Chemeng 100 and my language class,” Mason recalls. He had “17 or 18 exams during that quarter,” forcing him into an endless cycle of neglecting some classes to study for other tests.

The current program also locks students into the major. If ChemE students do not come in with AP or IB credit, the first two years of their Stanford education are spent taking prerequisites. Most of the ChemE classes do not start until junior year. Mason found that “there was no turning around’’ by the time he understood what the major would entail because it was too late.

Mason’s situation reflects the inflexibility of the major outside of just the unit count. Berenblum explains that “the barrier in the major is not just the number of units. It’s also when the classes are offered and the sequence you’re expected to take them in.” She adds that there is a way to have a relatively higher unit count but have classes offered more frequently or distributed more evenly throughout the year so students can study abroad or take classes in other fields every quarter.

Fortunately, the ChemE department seems to have taken notice. Professor Spakowitz agrees that the major needs to become more flexible, stating that reform has been ongoing since before the Faculty Senate announcement. While the revamped major will need to be revised to meet the new unit cap, he remarks that “the amount of flexibility we’re going to gain is huge.”

In addition to increasing flexibility, reform is necessary for the survival of ChemE as a major at Stanford. Berenblum points out that the introductory ChemE classes can be intimidating, especially for students who have not completed as many math and science classes.

Berenblum remembers her freshman spring in the class Introduction to Chemical Engineering. “I remember doing integrating factors — I hadn’t even taken a class on ODE’s yet,” she said.

She argues that an intro class should be more like an Introductory Seminar, where students can get more general exposure on the major and field and, as a result, have more time in their schedules to complete technical math and science classes before having to grapple with the material in ChemE classes.

Luciano Santollani, ’18 and current Ph.D. candidate in ChemE at MIT, echoes this sentiment. While he enjoyed his experience with the program, he felt, like Mason, that students did not get an accurate portrayal of the major until they were halfway done. Having an introductory course that is truly an introduction to the field is necessary to help students understand if ChemE is a major they want to pursue or not. 

Additionally, attempting to preserve the identity of ChemE too strictly could lead to its demise. Ph.D. student and CHEMENG 170 instructor Joel Schneider emphasizes the necessity of teaching transferable skills.

“Chemical engineering as a whole is going to get edged out… There’s a lot of overlap… with chemistry and materials science and mechanical engineering,” he explains. In order to maintain the relevance of the major and even the field, the skills taught by any ChemE department should be transferable “rather than being hyper-specific and hyper-focused on a couple of job applications.”

The 100 unit cap

While the unit cap is an opportunity for substantial reform to occur, the ChemE department should be wary that changes do not end up harming students. Mason notes that even with such a high unit count, the major does not accurately assign units to classes. A tighter unit cap could lead to classes’ unit counts being decreased without diminishing workload or making real changes to the program, a “disservice to students because they don’t know what they’re signing up for,” warns Schneider. 

Professor Spakowitz acknowledges these concerns, agreeing that they are “very legitimate” and that it will be a challenge to balance the unit cap while not losing the ability for ChemE to be cross-disciplinary. 

Another concern that the unit cap raises is the rigor and reputation of a Stanford degree, especially a Stanford engineering degree. However, rigor is not a direct function of the number of units in a degree program. Schneider argues that real skills are independent of the number of classes taken and, as more classes are imposed upon students, the thinner students are spread and the less effective each class becomes.

Even for post-graduation opportunities, Schneider and Santollani do not believe that removing a couple classes or requirements from the major will negatively affect a Stanford degree’s reputation or a ChemE graduate’s job or graduate school prospects.

With a 100-unit ChemE program, students would have the flexibility to have the level of rigor they want in their curriculum. Verma argues that “rigor is up to the student” and decreasing the department-prescribed requirements could allow students to “specialize a little more” in other areas. For example, a ChemE student could choose to take a physics class or a biology class with the extra room in their schedule.

Reforming the ChemE program

To cater to diverse student interests, other universities have tracks within their ChemE program. With a field as broad as ChemE, tracks help narrow the focus of the program to each student. Santollani describes the current Stanford curriculum approach as “one-size-fits-all” and wishes that the major could have been more personalizable.

Schneider, who completed his bachelor’s degree at MIT, experienced a track curriculum firsthand. At MIT, he explains, most of the core classes are the same for the first and second years. Then, as people start to develop their interests, the classes diverge. Classes like Biochemical Engineering that all Stanford ChemE students have to take would be an elective required for only those in the bio track.

Professor Spakowitz defends the ChemE program’s integration of a wide breadth of classes. From a pedagogical standpoint, he argues, “To only view any subject . . . from the perspective [of] . . . learning a skill . . . to be strictly transferred from this problem to this problem misses the point.” It is important to learn new ways to think and approach problems rather than pin a class’s utility on the applicability of the specific skills taught, according to Spakowitz.

Flexibility does not have to come at the expense of a holistic ChemE program, however. Berenblum points out that the three quarters of organic chemistry are not all necessary to understand the perspective taught by organic chemistry, and students should be given the freedom to choose how much organic chemistry they take versus physical chemistry, for example.

A core ChemE curriculum could still exist in a track system but better serve students’ interests. Verma noted that she would have loved an option to take physical chemistry classes instead of biochemistry classes. She ended up finding room in her schedule to take the physical chemistry series on top of the required biochemistry classes, but the option would have made her life easier.

Also, some classes are truly irrelevant for some students. While the case can be made that everyone should take a class or two on a fundamental concept like organic chemistry, not everyone needs to know how a fermentation reactor works. Schneider illustrates that students who go into oil and gas should learn how a distillation column works, but students going into pharmaceuticals need to learn how to operate bio batch reactors. Those planning on going to grad school should delve deeper into the theoretical side of ChemE, but students who go into finance simply need the problem solving skills, not the technical details.

Besides units

While classes are important for any degree program to impart foundational knowledge onto its students, other resources are just as significant. Santollani’s participation in the Chem-H program under professor Chaitan Khosla heavily influenced his post-graduate plans, and he remains very grateful for such opportunities to grow as a ChemE student outside of the classroom. The department should remain cognizant of time restraints classes may impose on students, preventing them from participating in enriching experiences that further their learning and growth.

More departmental support would also be appreciated by students. Mason recalls not having guidance freshman year: “I wish there was some kind of program that filled you in . . . There was none of that.” He suggests having a peer-advising program, so students can ask for advice from people who have been through the program.

Outside of structured and formalized resources, however, students have built a loving community during the multiple years spent together in classes. Verma and Berenblum have found a supportive and collaborative community among fellow ChemE majors. Mason found a group of friends who motivated him with their belief in him when things were hard. 

In addition to the student community, ChemE majors have found great support in their own professors and TAs. Mason remembers professor Gerry Fuller’s lunchtime review sessions before class and appreciates the extra resource that was provided to help more students succeed. Verma has also found her major advisor professor Stacey Bent as well as professor Roseanna Zia to be resources she can always turn to. 

In some areas, Stanford ChemE excels. In others, improvement is needed. The new unit cap is an opportunity for the department to rethink its curriculum and objectives. A ChemE major that serves its students well does not have to be over 100 units. Rather than looking at all the concepts and content that should be fit into a ChemE curriculum, Schneider argues, starting at the higher level learning goals and working backwards will make it easier include content that directly and effectively serves the overall learning goals. The number of units of the ChemE major does not represent how well ChemE students learn.

As Mason summarizes, “[It] all comes down to the foundational knowledge that you gain and how you’re able to apply it.”

Contact Caroline Kim at ckim99 ‘at’

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Caroline is a junior majoring in Chemical Engineering and minoring in Modern Languages. Some of her hobbies include baking (vegan) banana bread, dancing and thinking about how to make scientific knowledge more accessible to society.

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