A KEEN grant helped Dr. Jonathan Wenzel infuse entrepreneurial thinking into his Reaction Engineering course.

KEEN grant helps students explore entrepreneurial opportunities in the chemical engineering field

Dr. Jonathan Wenzel is one of six faculty Kettering faculty members to receive internal topical grants from the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) that encourage instructors to creatively infuse entrepreneurial elements in their classrooms.

Dr. Jonathan Wenzel, assistant professor of Chemical Engineering, is pushing his senior Chemical Engineering students in the Reaction Engineering class to think beyond the reactions taking place in the reactor. He wants them to think about the design, equipment and materials that make the engineering possible.

“Most chemical engineering curriculums in the United States teach students what size their equipment should be and what should come out of the equipment,” Wenzel said. “We teach them what comes out of reactors, but it’s very rare for a chemical engineering student to build the equipment that they are designing.”

Wenzel is one of six faculty Kettering faculty members to receive internal topical grants from the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) that encourage instructors to creatively infuse entrepreneurial elements in their classrooms. Additionally, distinguished faculty members in multiple departments at Kettering University have received about $40,000 each, for a total of $240,000 over the last two years, from KEEN to embed and incorporate various aspects of innovation and entrepreneurship mindset into their individual engineering and science courses.

How does the class work? Students are given the option to select a chemical reaction on their own and then evaluate its commercial importance based on safety, time and cost. Once selected, they build a chemical reactor from scratch to facilitate the reaction and then present their design, materials and costs to the rest of the class. The goal is to get students to consider the entrepreneurial opportunities for the entire chemical engineering field as there are professional voids that students can fill related to improving the design required to perform the science.

“I’m trying to get students to work on something open-ended. The seniors are good at working on problems that have one single correct situation,” Wenzel said. “Some students really enjoy it because it allows them to be creative. Other students treat it with trepidation because it’s not a one-correct answer problem. It can be frightening.”

The genesis of this idea was an elective class that Wenzel taught in Fall 2014. In that class, chemical engineering students collaborated with electrical engineers and biologists to design several pieces of equipment. Wenzel’s current approach differs from the elective class because he’s now asking students to design and construct the entire reactor.

“It gave the students a chance to see what they could accomplish as a small group of chemical engineers. You can design and build something that has practical use instead of working for multinational corporations,” Wenzel said.

Wenzel is hoping that this process and twist on a traditional chemical engineering class will help develop an enterprising attitude in the classroom as well as persistence to optimize laboratory solutions. Even for Wenzel himself, this is a new experience from which he’s benefiting alongside the students.

“As an instructor, it’s helping me learn and grow in the KEEN way of thinking,” Wenzel said. “I’ve been steeped in a conservative chemical engineering culture as well. This is something new for me as well. It allows me to look at my profession differently.”