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 FRONTIERS

by Mark Raleigh

Cheers!

Raise a glass to teaching that connects students’ interests with fundamental concepts.


Technical training alone is not enough - Mark RaleighBrewing beer continues to teach me a lot about engineering. I just wish I had been more interested in it as an undergraduate.

During my junior year, I struggled with some fundamental concepts in thermodynamics. Carnot cycles and heat engines were foreign to everyday life, and I had little tangible experience with heat exchangers. It was not until years later that I encountered a situation where I needed to remove a significant amount of heat from a system. This emerged when I picked up home-brewing as a hobby. Tending to a large kettle full of boiling wort (unfermented beer), I needed to cool that first batch of home-brew to room temperature as quickly as possible and transfer it to a fermentor, to prevent contamination by wild yeast. With my home-brewing credibility on the line, I tackled the problem by running cold water through a hollow copper coil submerged in the wort. As this heat exchanger chilled the wort, distant memories of that thermodynamics class returned and I had one of those gratifying “aha!” moments that come when classroom concepts connect to one’s personal interests.

On that note, I offer three cheers for beer, an enthusiasm shared widely by college students.

Bringing beer into the classroom (figuratively speaking) is one way of capturing students’ attention at times when topics are difficult or boring to learn. Reach back in history and you can even introduce Guinness stout into a statistics lecture on t-distribution. (William Sealy Gosset, writing in 1908 under the pseudonym “Student,” described the t-distribution that the Irish beer manufacturer used to assess the quality of brewery ingredients.) Other examples abound at the intersection of beer, engineering, and history.

The fundamental concepts of energy and mass conservation can be beautifully demonstrated in the brewing process, and a class trip to the local brewery would reinforce these principles and win an instructor brownie points with students. Today’s brewery is a nexus of virtually all engineering disciplines. Civil engineers design the structure and layout of a brewery. The brewery’s pipe networks, pumps, heat exchangers, and bottling machinery are designed by mechanical engineers. Chemical engineers assist with quality control, while control systems engineers allow automated monitoring and control of the brewing process. Reducing the waste generated from a brewery is a problem that concerns environmental engineers, and electrical and power engineers harness clean sources of energy that are sought after by many environmentally friendly breweries. Framing some lecture examples in the context of brewery design may be more exciting than a faceless, hypothetical example.

Although most students are unlikely to be home-brewers, their casual interest in the foamy beverage presents an opportunity to explain classroom concepts in ways that may be more readily understood and appreciated. Because students learn in a variety of ways, drawing on different analogies and comparisons will maximize the chance that the material will resonate with them. It is not surprising that marrying students’ interests with classroom concepts is a recipe for successful learning.

Pedagogy that connects technical concepts to students’ interests can be effective and fun. This approach need not focus on beer, as other common activities and interests will produce the same effect. Sailing and kayaking can be great teachers of fluid dynamics, music can be used to teach numerical sequences, and sports can be used to teach physics concepts. The lesson for professors is this: Find the intersection between your students’ interests and your syllabus, and you will understand how to turn your lecture into happy hour.

 

Mark Raleigh, an avid home-brewer, is a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington.

 



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