Fresh thinking: new HCEUK chair on the future of chem eng education

As green leaves appearing on trees signal the start of spring in the UK, it’s also the time for a new role for IChemE member Chris Dodds; bringing a fresh perspective to the future of chemical engineering education and research.

The Head of Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of Nottingham recently formally began as Chair of the Heads of Chemical Engineering UK (HCEUK). This independent group comprises of one senior representative from the chemical engineering department in UK universities. HCEUK also fund the provision of a coordinator who is employed through IChemE to support them.

Chris is the fourth chair of HCEUK since its inception in 2015 and has taken the baton from Professor Mark Simmons at the University of Birmingham. Prior to that, Professor Mike Sutcliffe of the University of Manchester, and the University of Leeds’ Professor Elaine Martin each took the leading role. A new chair and members of the group are introduced every few years, coinciding with changes in heads of departments at universities, bringing fresh thoughts and leadership to the group.

Chris has held a variety of roles in his 20 years at the University of Nottingham’s Faculty of Engineering and aims to bring his knowledge and experience to his term as chair. Working with his colleagues across the profession, he is keen to help shape the matters affecting the education of students and research, as well as to exchange examples of good practice in chemical engineering higher education and promote the discipline.

Chris said: “I’m delighted to become chair and thank Mark and my predecessors for all they’ve done enabling our achievements to date. Although my role is to chair, this really isn’t about me; it’s a collective effort in discussing, debating and sharing knowledge with one another and working with like-minded bodies to help uphold the quality of education and research establishments we have in the UK.”

The HCEUK representatives meet regularly to determine and deliver their activities, often collaborating with IChemE’s Education Special Interest Group (EdSIG). This work includes:

  • Working to inform and influence – both independently and in collaboration with IChemE and other organisations – government and agencies such as funding bodies and research councils, which may have an impact on chemical engineering higher education.
  • Maintaining contact with industry representatives to discuss graduate skills needs, the curriculum and agree mutual support between universities and industry.
  • Providing support for the heads of chemical engineering departments in their responsibilities to lead the discipline in their institution at a local, national and international level. For example, through mentoring, networking and collation of information relevant to national and international situations.

Chris formally started his new role at the group’s most recent online meeting on 7 April, ahead of the annual ChemEngDayUK event hosted by the University of Bradford. Normally HCEUK would have its yearly physical gathering at the event. However the COVID-19 pandemic meant the group remained gathering online, before joining approximately 100 students and educators at the two-day virtual event to learn about the latest research, innovations and discuss the future of the education landscape.

In HCEUK’s meeting, they discussed ideas for promoting the discipline, such as providing current and relevant resources for prospective students about all the exciting sectors for their career. They also discussed outreach activities with secondary school students and teachers, such as the departments hosting ‘discovery days’, to show how chemical engineering differentiates from, and can work with, other engineering disciplines, as well as to showcase the breadth of applications. For example, demonstrating to students how chemical engineering can help address environmental issues and other aspects of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Through this they hope to reduce any ambiguity on what chemical engineering is and hope to encourage more students to consider studying chemical engineering. A key recent activity for HCEUK was contributing to the UKRI Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)’s Workshop on the Health of Chemical Engineering on 21 April. This once-a-decade review holistically assesses the chemical engineering research landscape, the important focus areas now and its future direction, so was a great opportunity for HCEUK to provide representation to help shape this.

Chris said: “I feel the UK is a leader in research and innovation and that stems from a diverse range of clever, dedicated chemical engineers across academia and industry, working together to make a real impact. All of us in HCEUK are keen to encourage and nurture the next generation, so we’re developing a range of activities to help students see what a great and varied career it is. I hope through this they will do the same for future generations to encourage a cycle of creative solutions.

“I believe the diversity of people and breadth of research within chemical engineering are the greatest strengths we have. But it can sometimes feel challenging to have our discipline collectively represented within UKRI and funding bodies to ensure their amazing innovations are supported to deliver impact. Through the EPSRC Workshop it’s incredibly important that we get to put across the point of views and expertise from our hugely talented researchers and educators across the UK, as this could influence the future curriculums, research and funding for chemical engineering, and particularly impact the future professionals who will be making their mark on providing solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges in sustainable resources, health, energy, food and so on.

“It was great to discuss this altogether at our HCEUK meeting, and have the support from Nooryesha Choudhury at IChemE. I’m looking forward to working with everyone at HCEUK to play our part in moving higher education forward.”

After graduating at Aston University in 2018 with a first class MEng degree in Chemical Engineering, Nooryesha joined IChemE as an intern in the Learned Society Team supporting a range of technical groups, including water, biochemical engineering and pharmaceutical. This also includes IChemE’s work to help tackle the challenges presented by COVID-19 and investigating how the Institution can play its part in climate change mitigation.

In January 2021, Nooryesha was appointed as the Higher Education Executive at IChemE where 50% of her role is dedicated to supporting HCEUK to deliver on its objectives. This includes leading and conducting research as identified and required by HCEUK, developing position statements and responses to consultations on relevant topics, and building relationships with key stakeholders including other professional engineering institutions (PEIs), research councils and regulatory bodies. The other 50% of her time is supporting IChemE’s education-related activities, including the new Individual Case Procedure (ICP) process for professional qualification.

Nooryesha said: “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first four months of my new role. There’s been a variety of different projects to get involved with and no two days have been the same.

“My background in chemical engineering certainly helps in my role to support IChemE’s higher education related activities and the Education Special Interest Group. Prior knowledge in chemical engineering concepts and an understanding of the learning outcomes expected following undergraduate and postgraduate study has also been extremely beneficial in getting to grips with the new ICP process for members looking to become professionally qualified.

“I look forward to working with Chris and the members of HCEUK, who possess a wealth of knowledge and expertise to help deliver on the group’s wider aims and objectives. HCEUK is an independent group, and my role is purely in a supportive capacity. IChemE remains impartial to the group’s work and does not have any overriding influence on HCEUK’S activity. That said, HCEUK and IChemE’s relationship is an important interface to facilitate clearer channels of communication, exchange ideas and ensure both parties can work in synergy where possible to help achieve the best possible outcomes for chemical engineering higher education teaching and research.”

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