K-12 students get research experience in program modified for pandemic

Posted: October 2, 2020

Along with teaching and research, Professor L.-S. Fan goes out of his way to perform another duty he deems important to the field of chemical engineering:  Outreach.

Fan Group Mentors and Faculty Working with High Schoolers on Zoom
L-R, top row down: Rushikesh Joshi, Lang Qin, Mandar Kathe, Pinak Mohapatra, Garrett Nerone, David Breckenridge, Sonu Kumar, L.-S. Fan, Noah Kistler, Anish Gupta, Wenda Williamson and Anuj Joshi during the final Zoom meeting of the Fan Lab's summer mentoring program.

Every summer, the Fan Lab provides a group of high school students with a chemical engineering research experience, and this summer was no different—except in the details. Instead of meeting in a laboratory, sessions were offered online via Zoom.

“Despite our circumstances this summer, I felt it was still important to proceed with the class in order to provide students with an experience that promotes critical and creative thinking in the field of chemical engineering,” Fan explained.

The plan was to give students a taste of chemical engineering by providing them with a small team project that would be of value to the students. 

St. Charles Preparatory High School students Anish Gupta and Noah Kistler, sophomores, and Garrett Nerone, a junior, participated in the project. David Breckenridge, St Charles’ college liaison, coordinated the sessions. “Chemical engineering is clearly beyond the norm for a high school student. The internship helps them get familiar with things they will encounter in college,” he said. Students were receptive. 


“This was a unique new experience that will help me be better prepared for the future.” -High school junior Garrett Nerone


The seven weekly sessions provided a robust introduction to chemical engineering and current research in chemical looping, with interactive sessions to gauge the students’ interests and bring out maximum value. “It was very interesting to learn what chemical engineers do,” said Noah. “I liked seeing how stuff in school is applied in the real world.” All the students agreed on that point. “It wasn’t just a test. It applied to the real world,” Anish said.

Fan Lab mentors and instructors included Professor L-. S. Fan, Dr. Mandar Kathe, Pinak Mohapatra, Sonu Kumar, Rushikesh Joshi, Anuj Joshi, and Lang Qin.

"Our pedagogical approach included providing enough tools and examples to enable students to apply the principles learned in the program to new, independent situations," explained Kathe.

Fan Lab Summer 2020 Outreach Program

The first session introduced chemical engineering and explained how it was different from chemistry. Instructors provided an overview and examples of the various industries in which chemical engineers play an important role and how chemical engineering is integrated in our daily life. Students were shown how physics, biology, math and economics form the foundation of many chemical engineering principles utilized in various aspects of industry. They were then challenged with questions to foster creative thinking about the application of the concepts learned. The homework included making a summary of the session and further expanding on the concepts.

In the second session, instructors discussed how chemical reaction done in the lab is different from the reactions done on an industrial scale, and summarized the challenges associated with scaling up. Class members followed the journey of a chemical reaction from a test-tube to a batch reactor, covering common batch operations such as stirring, reactant feeding, sampling of reaction mixtures, and temperature-pressure measurement. They learned about different types of reactors and how reactor size can vary from microliter to a kiloliter, and the scale of operation can vary from a few grams a day to hundreds of tons per day. With the help of a few pictures to help the class visualize how big a chemical reactor can be, students then thought about the challenges that would be faced running a full-scale operation involving tons and kiloliters of working material, instead of small batches in a lab. Heating of the reactors and safety concerns associated with using utilities were discussed.

The discussion about the downstream processing of reaction products continued in the third session, which delved deeper into reaction and the importance of separations in the industry—a very crucial step. Common methods such as drying, filtration, distillation and extraction were introduced and the basic concepts underlying these operations were discussed. Students were shown how separations are done lab-scale and how different it is on an industrial scale.

Next, instructors provided an overview of the two most important aspects of the chemical industry: catalysis and the petroleum industry. They gave examples of how the concepts learned in the last two sessions are applied in the real world. Common concerns such as deactivation, low recyclability and cost factors were discussed to give students an insight into its importance. Students learned about the petroleum industry and how crude oil is a source of a great many things in our day-to-day life.

At this point, the team sat down and discussed possible projects for the students. With the current COVID situation, disinfectants are of prime importance, so the separation of cresols was thought to be a challenging and interesting problem for the students. The remaining lectures introduced the required knowledge, such as distillation, and the students had three weeks to work on their projects.


"The process of identifying a student’s level of understanding when they begin, and watching the positive changes in student knowledge base and skills has been incredibly fulfilling and enjoyable for me. I get the satisfaction of doing my part in paying it forward and training the scientists and engineers of the future."  -Fan Lab Mentor Dr. Mandar Kathe


The fifth lecture focused on distillation concepts such as vapor liquid equilibrium and other types of distillation such as steam distillation, flash distillation column, steam distillation and batch distillation. Different types of trays and column packings were also shown.

An introductory lesson on material and energy balance to enable students to perform basic MEBC in their project followed. With the help of examples, students were introduced to the principles of conservation of mass, energy and atoms and how these simple principles can be used to plan an entire chemical plant. This information was intended to direct the students to find a solution in distillation operation and further carry out the material and energy balance calculations required.

The seventh session focused on the research that goes on in the clean energy lab at The Ohio State University. Students were introduced to chemical looping combustion and chemical looping partial oxidation and how these concepts can be further expanded to other reactions and feeds. “I had never heard of chemical looping,” said Anish. “It helped to see what was involved and how critical thinking could lead to forming a new product.”

In the final session, students presented their material and energy balance project results, which were quite impressive. They used extractive distillation, which is one of the industrially-used methods for separation of cresols. Fan Lab members queried the students to gain insight into their thought-processes and problem-solving methods, and students provided well-reasoned responses. The session concluded with a few questions on chemical looping technology. 

“The class helped me see how to work as a team,” Noah said. “It was a good test, breaking a problem into smaller parts to find solutions,” Garrett added. “It was a real good experience.”

Other research groups in the department have also mentored students. Gauri Nabar, who is currently working on her thesis for Drs. Jessica Winter and Lisa Hall, also mentored a student this summer via Zoom. High school student Natalie Cuevas had expressed interest in the work being done in the Winter Lab. "Working with high school students in a win-win for the students as well as Ohio State," Nabar said. "We are happy to provide training for the next generation of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs. In turn, the students ask good questions and contribute to our research."

Jackelyn Galiardi, who mentored students in Dr. David Wood’s lab, says that mentoring helps to validate students’ interests. “The ultimate takeaway from this experience is for them to discover what excites and interests them,” she said.

Category: Faculty