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Chemical Engineering Option
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The chemical engineering option is designed to educate students who will engage in professional practice at the forefront of chemical engineering or excel graduate school, and, ultimately, become leaders in engineering, science, academia, business, and public service in a continually changing world. It accomplishes this by providing a broad and rigorous training in the fundamentals of chemical engineering while maintaining a balance between classroom lectures and laboratory experience. The program also strives to develop in each student self-reliance, creativity, professional ethics, an appreciation of the societal impact of chemical engineering, and the importance of continuing intellectual growth.

An important outcome of a chemical engineering education is to prepare a student to synthesize the many subjects studied into the design of a system, component, process, or experiment. Problems illustrating the design process are integrated into the core courses. The nature and scope of these will depend on the focus of the course. In keeping with the philosophy of using tracks to ensure depth in each student’s selected area of focus, and recognizing that many Caltech students go on to graduate study or pursue careers in research and development at the frontiers of chemical engineering, Caltech Chemical Engineering offers several opportunities to satisfy the design requirement.

The experiments in the second term of the senior laboratories focus on design. In ChE128, the required lab for Materials, Environmental, and Process Systems track students, students develop and experimentally evaluate a chemical process to meet a specific design objective that may focus on synthesis of a chemical product or material, or on destruction or removal of an environmental contaminant. Students in the Biomolecular track take ChE 130 in which they design and build a biological system to achieve a target functionality.

While all groups start with the same basic toolkit, each group undertakes design to achieve a different objective, and then builds and evaluates their system. In addition, students in the Process Systems track undertake a project in integrated chemical process design using chemical process simulation tools. All students have the opportunity to substitute for the second laboratory course a senior thesis (two terms) that contains a significant component of design in the sense that the original problem is open ended and requires identifying solutions subject to constraints. To ensure that the thesis project will satisfy the design requirement, students must submit a thesis proposal at the time of their preregistration that describes the project and its design component, as well as the first term progress report and final thesis, to the department senior thesis coordinator.

ABET Accredition

The chemical engineering program at Caltech is accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of the ABET (http://www.abet.org).

ABET is responsible for assuring educational quality.  It is a voluntary, non-governmental organization that provides peer review to determine whether certain standards and criteria for engineering education are being met.  Accreditation certifies that an institution or program has met the criteria.

ABET accreditation tells students, their parents, and employers that the program has met minimum standards, and that it has been judged by professionals to provide an adequate preparation for the engineering graduate.  It also establishes standards, procedures, and an environment that will encourage the highest quality for engineering technology, and that the graduates are aware of public health and safety considerations.  Many state registration and certification boards consider ABET-accredited programs for state licensure and certification.

The chemical engineering option follows ABET’s criteria for engineering accreditation which is termed EC2000.  Under this approach, schools must demonstrate program outcomes and assessments that included the following for a well-educated engineer:

  • an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, sciences, and engineering
  • an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data
  • an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability
  • an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams
  • an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems
  • an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility
  • an ability to communicate effectively
  • the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context
  • a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning
  • a knowledge of contemporary issues
  • an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice.

Chemical engineering involves applications of chemistry, physics, mathematics, and, increasingly, biology and biochemistry. In addition to basic physics, chemistry, and mathematics, the chemical engineering curriculum includes the study of applied and computational mathematics, fluid mechanics, heat and mass transfer, thermodynamics, chemical kinetics and chemical reactor design, and process control. Because of this broad-based foundation that emphasizes basic and engineering sciences, chemical engineering is perhaps the broadest of the engineering disciplines (see chart below for industrial employment). Many Caltech students go into academic positions as well. For more on employment, placement and careers click here.

Hiring trends for Chemical Engineering graduates going into industrial employment in 2007, per the AIChE 2006-07 Initial Placement Survey:

Industry hiring trends for ChEs

Reprinted with permission from CEP (Chemical Engineering Progress), January 2008.
Copyright © 2008 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

Because many industries utilize some chemical or physical transformation of matter, the chemical engineer is much in demand. He or she may work in the manufacture of inorganic products (ceramics, semiconductors, and other electronic materials); in the manufacture of organic products (polymer fibers, films, coatings, pharmaceutical, hydrocarbon fuels, and petrochemicals); in other process industries; or in the biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, or biomedical industries. Chemical engineering underlies most of the energy field, including the efficient production and utilization of coal, petroleum, natural gas, and newer technologies like fuel cells. Chemical engineers are uniquely qualified to understand molecular and macroscopic processes in natural environments, such as the air or water, and to design and analyze processes for the abatement of emissions. The chemical engineer may also enter the field of biochemical engineering, where applications range from the utilization of microorganisms and cultured cells, to enzyme engineering and other areas of emerging biotechnology, to the manufacture of foods, to the design of artificial human organs.

The Curriculum

The motivations for the structure of the curriculum are: (i) to prepare for job diversity, (ii) to provide emphasis on translation of fundamental science to engineering applications and (iii) to provide an emphasis on atomic/molecular
level phenomena.

Freshman and sophomore students normally take the core courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology (Ma 1 abc, Ma 2 ab, Ph 1 abc, Ph 2 ab, Ch 1 ab, and Bi 1). They also take the second-year organic chemistry course, Ch 41 abc, and the basic chemical engineering courses, ChE 63 ab and ChE 64. It is strongly recommended that they also take a course in computer programming (e.g. CS 1 or CS 2).

Undergraduate research is emphasized, and students are encouraged, even in the freshman year, to participate in research with the faculty. In order to obtain a basic intellectual background, all students take courses in the fundamentals of chemical engineering through the junior year. During the junior and senior years, students diversify into one of four tracks (see schedule) where they pursue concentrated study in their chosen area of chemical engineering. An optional senior thesis provides an opportunity to pursue independent research in lieu of one of the senior laboratories.

Attention is called to the fact that any student whose grade-point average is less than 1.9 at the end of an academic year in the subjects listed under the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering may, at the discretion of the faculty in this division, be refused permission to continue the work in this option.

Option Requirements

  1. Ch 3 b, Ch 41 abc, ChE 63 ab, ChE 62, ACM 95 abc, Ch 21 a, Ch 21b (or Ch 24a), ChE 101, ChE 103 abc, ChE 105, ChE 126, Ch/ChE 91 (or En 84), three science/engineering electives (two if ChE 90 ab is selected), and one of Ec 11, BEM 101, or BEM 1031.
  2. Completion of a track (biomolecular, environmental, process systems, or materials), each consisting of eight science or engineering courses. Students should inform the executive officer of their track choice by the beginning of the spring quarter of the sophomore year by providing a planned schedule for completion of all degree requirements.
    For track requirements, go here.
  3. Passing grades must be earned in all courses required by the Institute and the option. None of the courses satisfying option requirements may be taken pass/fail.

    1These 9 units partially satisfy the Institute requirements in humanities and social sciences.

See Courses and FAQs for more on course design, curriculum and requirements. See Schedule for details on a typical course schedule including sample tracks and a template. If you are attending high school, or have graduated from high school but have never enrolled at a college or university as a degree-seeking student, apply as a freshman.


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