For students in the Department of Chemical Engineering, the future of the discipline is not just about making scientific discoveries or developing new technologies, but making sure that as many people as possible can participate in these critical processes.   

That’s why, as part of the University of Utah Chapter of one of the discipline’s top national scholarly societies, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), the department’s Outreach Team is an active participant in efforts to engage with the next generation of researchers in the field.  

The AIChE K-12 Community’s objective is to increase interest, awareness, and excitement in the discipline for future chemical engineers, preparing them to solve technical challenges in an ethical, environmentally responsible, and socially conscious way. To that end, it holds an annual Outreach Competition, where college students design educational modules that cover a foundational topic within chemical engineering. 

The Department of Chemical Engineering's outreach team poses after their trip to Wind River
The Department of Chemical Engineering’s outreach team.

The U’s team earned a pair of awards in this year’s national competition for their module on “Bernoulli’s First Buoyancy.” Their lesson on the fundamental principles that make objects float or sink took home first place prizes amongst modules designed by undergraduates, as well as for those aimed at K–2 students. 

This is the fourth year in a row that the Outreach Team has participated in the AIChE competition, and the third time they have received top honors. Previous winning modules covered the design of air quality sensors, the body’s production of thermoelectric power, and applications of alginate, the algae-derived sugar molecule commonly used as a thickener in food products.    

“Chemical engineering is a rewarding profession in need of many more talented graduates to meet societal needs. I am grateful to work with a student and faculty community that is committed to our professional responsibility to recruit and mentor the next generation of engineers,” says Professor (Lecturer) Tony Butterfield, Associate Department Chair and Advisor for the Community Outreach Team.

Even with their string of success in the AIChE competition, the Chemical Engineering Student Outreach Team is motivated by more than just awards. The team’s ultimate goal is to open doors to STEM education for younger students who have been historically underrepresented in those fields. 

Exemplifying these efforts is the team’s relationship with the Fort Washakie Schools on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation. Earlier this year, the team made the 300-mile drive to run an all-day STEM Fair at the high school, which drew in participants from local elementary schools as well. Along with running some of their AIChE-award-winning modules, the Outreach Team worked with students and administrators to incorporate indigenous knowledge and local issues, such as the history of toxic and radioactive waste storage in the region.