By Will Ferguson, WSU News

PULLMAN, Wash. – With the turn of a nozzle, Kitana Kaiphanliam sends a jet of red and then blue water coursing through a maze of plastic tubing. She is using a desktop-sized science experiment to demonstrate fluid mechanics and heat transfer to a group of undergraduate students.

Kaiphanliam, a chemical engineering doctoral student at Washington State University, has been working for the last year with a team headed by chemical engineering professor Bernard Van Wie, which is designing and testing desktop learning modules, like the heat exchanger, that help students learn important concepts by seeing and doing rather than reading and lectures.

That’s a key distinction.

By making it easier for hands-on learners and other students who struggle in introductory courses to learn important engineering concepts, Kaiphanliam hopes her research will help open the field of engineering to a much broader spectrum of people.

“I want to help students like me, who prefer learning with their hands rather than sitting in a lecture hall, because if we can make it easier for more people to learn basic engineering concepts, then we can also increase diversity in the field,” Kaiphanliam said. “More diversity brings people with unique view points to the table which is helpful when solving problems. And in engineering we face a lot of tough problems.”

The need to find ways to bring greater diversity to the field is critical.

While women make up 46 percent of the overall workforce, they account for just 14 percent of American engineers. Many racial and ethnic groups are similarly underrepresented in the field. Just 5 percent of engineering professionals are African American, for example, and only 7 percent are Latino.

Journey to WSU

Four years ago, Kaiphanliam never would have imagined she would be pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering at the age of 21. Her parents fled to the United States from war-torn Laos in Southeast Asia and had Kaiphanliam in Richland, Wash., where she grew up and went to high school. She was a cheerleader, a member of her high school’s associated student body leadership, and admits academics weren’t always her top priority.

Nevertheless, Kaiphanliam said she knew since her freshman year of high school she wanted to major in chemical engineering when she got to college.

“I was good at math and science, so my freshman chemistry teacher suggested chemical engineering as a possible career for me, and it stuck,” Kaiphanliam said. “And then when I came to WSU, I quickly realized chemical engineering is such a broad field, and I got excited about all of the possibilities for my future career.”

Kaiphanliam said she had to work hard as a WSU undergraduate, staying up late and struggling through lecture notes and textbooks on difficult engineering concepts. Like many young people interested in a career in engineering, Kaiphanliam is a kinesthetic learner. She understands new concepts best when carrying out physical activities rather than listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration.

Unfortunately, Kaiphanliam only had a few experiences with hands-on learning as an undergraduate. One of those was provided by Van Wie, who tested one of his desktop learning modules in a class Kaiphanliam was taking her first summer in Pullman.

“He and one of his graduate students had been teaching with these cool hands-on learning modules, and I remembered thinking that is such a great way of learning.” she said.

Hands-on learning

Her senior year, Kaiphanliam took Van Wie’s biochemical engineering elective and immediately remembered him from her first summer at WSU.

“When I walked into class, I realized he was the professor that had tested the hands-on learning modules in my class,” she said. “I was really interested in the work, so I eventually worked up the courage to ask him if I could get involved. He invited me to one of his research group meetings, and I have been to every one ever since.”

For the last year, Kaiphanliam has worked with Van Wie and his team of researchers in the Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) group developing and testing desktop learning modules in WSU classrooms.

Kaiphanliam credits senior graduate student mentor Negar Beheshti Pour as having a key role in her positive first year experience. Beheshti Pour’s work, refining the heat exchanger for her MS thesis and helping undergraduate researchers like Kaiphanliam, has been an important component of the team’s success.

Van Wie, the research lead, said the IUSE group’s collegial atmosphere and innovative approach to designing and implementing new learning modules has played a key role in attracting new students like Kaiphanliam.

In particular, he credits chemical engineering professor David Thiessen, mechanical engineering professors Robert Richards and Prashanta Dutta, education professor Olusola Adesope, as well as Beheshti Pour and fellow graduate student researchers Fanhe Meng, Aminul Kahn, Nathaniel Hunsu, Paul Golter and Jacqueline Burgher. Undergraduate researcher Charles Ward, who built the shell and tube heat exchanger, was also an integral component of the team.

“All have played key roles in advancing the experiments that Kitana experienced in the classroom,” Van Wie said.

Looking forward

With a target cost comparable to a textbook, the learning modules make it possible for teams of students to pursue their own investigations of engineering concepts, like fluid dynamics and heat transfer, rather than passively learning the material via a lecture.

“Our next step is packaging up what we have learned and getting it out there for other universities to use,” Kaiphanliam said.“Because if it works here, we think it will work at other places. Hopefully in the next five years or so, using desktop learning modules to teach basic engineering concepts will become more a part of the core engineering curriculum.”

Kaiphanliam, who finished her bachelor’s studies and started her Ph.D. in chemical engineering this May, recently presented on her research at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Regional Conference and won first place in the paper competition. She will be presenting at the AIChE national conference in Pittsburg, Penn., this October.

She said her eventual goal is to become a professor of engineering education so that she can help students like herself succeed.

“My research and experience working in engineering education has helped me realize I love to teach, and I would really like to be a professor one day,” she said. “I was an undergrad who struggled and, being female and a minority, I feel like I could relate to a lot of students in a similar situation.”