Students see chemical engineering in action during plant visit


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Enabling students to witness class concepts applied in the real world was the focus of a trip by Penn State chemical engineering graduate students to the BASF chemical plant in Monaca, Pennsylvania, during the fall 2018 semester.

Christian Pester, assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science and engineering, took eight graduate students in his CHE 597 Electroactive and Conductive Polymer course to the plant in late October 2018 to learn about polymerization techniques that BASF uses at that site. BASF Corporation, headquartered in Florham Park, New Jersey, is the North American affiliate of BASF SE, based in Ludwigshafen, Germany.

BASF's operations in the U.S. are diverse and include chemical manufacturing sites, like the Monaca facility.

“I took the students to the plant because I thought they’d benefit from it. The students told me none of them had ever seen a chemical plant up close,” Pester said. “It was a worthwhile experience, considering most of them will be working at one for the rest of their lives.”

Pester said that the inspiration for taking the students on this field visit is based on going on a similar class-related trip to an industrial plant while a student at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.

“I remember being impressed because it was my first opportunity to see what I am actually in school for,” Pester said.

At the BASF plant, students toured locations at the facility which were more relevant to their studies on polymers. Part of the CHE 597 class is related to commodity plastics that are used in common products. At BASF, they are using emulsion polymerization, a technique Pester discusses in his class, to manufacture polymer dispersions for the paint, construction and adhesives industries.

“On the tour, the students were able to visit the site’s reactor control rooms and manufacturing areas where the polymerization reactions they are learning about take place,” Roberto Nelson, BASF senior manager, corporate communications and community relations, said. “Additionally, the tour highlighted several other essential manufacturing processes, including logistical functions, raw material unloading and storage and utility systems.”

Nelson noted that for many of the students, this was their first visit to a manufacturing facility. The visit not only allowed them to see several of the engineering concepts they are studying being used in real-world applications, it also helped them envision their possible career paths. Part of the visit included a panel discussion where students could ask BASF employees what their work experience is like.

“The tour and Q&A session provided the students with an opportunity to ask questions that will help them with their future career choices,” Nelson said.

Pester and Nelson both believe that partnerships between industry and academia are important. They noted that there are benefits for all parties involved.

“In my opinion, the ties between academia and industry are not nearly as close as they should be. Not just regarding funding, but also regarding mentorship, recruiting, etc.,” Pester said. “In short, I wanted to allow my students to get an up-close opportunity to experience a potential future employer after they graduate from Penn State.”

“Establishing mutually beneficial relationships with schools who are producing high potential talent for future positions is important for BASF,” Nelson added.

Based on the success of the BASF trip, Pester said he is exploring other opportunities for industry visits.

“Seeing a reaction on a large scale and in practice is different than just drawing it up on a blackboard in a classroom or in homework,” Pester said. “Experiences like this are of incredible significance for the students.”



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Jamie Oberdick



The Penn State Department of Chemical Engineering, established in 1948, is recognized as one of the largest and most influential chemical engineering departments in the nation.

The department is built upon the fundamentals of academic integrity, innovation in research, and commitment to the advancement of industry.

Department of Chemical Engineering

121 Chemical and Biomedical Engineering Building

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802

Phone: 814-865-2574