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For more than 70 years, the Unit Ops Lab has been a cornerstone for undergraduate training in chemical engineering. Now, Professor Ariel Chan (ChemE) is using virtual reality and 3D simulations to make it accessible to students who are studying from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Unit Ops is like medical school for our students,” says Chan, who coordinates several lab-based courses built around the facility’s capabilities. “It’s such a major lab, providing students the practical experiences of a practiced engineer. Only a handful of universities in Canada have a facility like this.”

A gigantic, two-storey laboratory space located in the Wallberg Building, the Unit Ops features towering industry-scale equipment and provides third-year students with hands-on experience. This is where they design and experiment with processes used in a wide range of chemical engineering industries, from bioethanol production to pharmaceutical drug manufacturing.

“Sadly, this term students are missing the opportunity to experience it, to go up and down those stairs — but we can do our best to get it as close as we can, and bridge that curriculum gap.”

Chan and her teaching assistants are mimicking the Unit Ops experience using virtual reality (VR), high-resolution virtual tours, at-home experiments, and 3D simulation/design software. Together, these tools give students a chance to virtually step into the Unit Ops Lab and test their skills in an industry environment.

A VR experiment in Labster.

Using the VR program Labster, students experience a first-person point of view as they replicate an industry-style lab experiment — right down to putting on a lab coat and gloves.

Students then refer to the Unit Ops website Chan and her team created exclusively for students, in order to connect the dots between what they handled in VR, and what those same pieces of equipment look like within the Unit Ops lab space.

“The team mapped out every inch of the lab to create a fully immersive and comprehensive virtual experience of Unit Ops,” says Chan.

Unit Ops Lab site lets students virtually tour and inspect equipment found in the two-storey space.

From there, students are given pre-collected data that they can compare to similar systems within their household. For example, a regular household drainage pipe can serve as a scaled-down example for studying the upstream and downstream processes of bioethanol production.

“The guiding philosophy for our approach is that engineering is all around us,” explains Chan. “If they were in industry, they would have to inspect piping systems to figure out the cause of a blockage. That’s not too different from inspecting your sink pipes.”

The home lab component turns the online instruction into practical learning — whether it’s investigating a pipe blockage, or experimenting with yeast fermentation to learn bioethanol production, or studying a kitchen stove to assess heat-transfer effectiveness.

“Sure, you can learn the chemistry, the measurements, but when you turn a valve, how does it feel? The sensory portion is so important,” says Chan. To ensure students approach each assignment like a practicing engineer, they must then design a 3D simulation of the system they’re studying and perform the experiment as if they were in industry.

The approach seems to be connecting with students. During the fall term, Chan’s students posted many of their home experiments and video presentations in the course’s message boards, and even on TikTok.

“When you do more, and for the greater good, it’s rewarding,” she says. “Other universities might just give students data and an assignment, but for our students, the extra work — this whole process — enables them to be better prepared to be engineers.”

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