A New Flavor of Undergraduate Research

John Kaiser and ChE 490 offer a different kind of internship

Undergraduate research and independent study have long been a part of the chemical engineering program at ISU. Students can expand their understanding of engineering research and also earn credit towards their degree by working with faculty on various projects as part of the ISU course “ChE 490, Undergraduate Research/Independent Study.”

In 2019, CBE professor of practice John Kaiser introduced a new flavor of this course with what he likes to call “Applied Industry Research.” His version of ChE 490 sparks interest in both the students and the businesses involved.

“We encourage all our undergraduates to do co-ops and internships,” says Kaiser, “because they provide such valuable experience and preparation for their careers.” However, not all students have that opportunity. In response, Kaiser created a version of a professional internship that students can pursue while still on campus.

How does this course work? Companies sign up and provide semester-long engineering projects for the students to work on with them hand-in-hand. Students usually work in teams. In the spring 2020 semester, there were projects with a company that deals with mint flavoring, a world leading manufacturer of collagen (gelatin) products, a wine maker and an ice cream manufacturer.

“This class provides them with an extra level of hands-on involvement directly with a company,” Kaiser says, “and additional training that can prepare them for rapid on-boarding during that first job out of school.”

Companies have a modest buy-in to participate and the intellectual property rights (plans, processes, etc.) used in the program are owned and retained by the company. However, if a participating student develops a new process which the company wants to protect, he or she is given credit as an inventor. “Now, that’s a valuable achievement to have on your resume,” says Kaiser.

Participating companies are encouraged to have the students visit their offices and facilities whenever possible. One company arranged for students to travel to an agricultural growing region in Indiana to obtain first-hand insight into strategic crop and processing aspects together with farmers, brokers and technical experts. “And, sometimes the scope of the project becomes much larger,” Kaiser reported.

Kaiser knows from experience how a program like this can impact engineering graduates. He spent years working with prospective and new hires when he was with Mars Chocolate prior to joining the Iowa State CBE faculty. And he’s seen the gaps in training that exist for students just coming out of college. “I helped create this course at Iowa State because as an engineer in the field I saw what new hires needed in experience. With this experience you can walk out the door after graduation with a huge edge in real-world training. Students who participate get exposure and application to project management, IP training, literature and IP searches, ideation and much more. Skills that might take two years for a new hire to learn in training otherwise.”

Kaiser says at the start of a semester he presents a handful of classroom sessions, and after that, the students quickly begin work on their respective projects. They perform lab and pilot work with facilities in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and also use the facilities in Iowa State’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

“The companies don’t expect the students to have all the answers to their needs in just one semester, but the students’ work is on a timeline and progress is closely tracked – and, that is a big dose of real-world practices,” Kaiser remarks.
Though it’s offered by CBE and many of the participating companies to date are involved with foods, Kaiser stresses it is not limited only to chemical engineering students, and not to food industry businesses. “The gelatin project has a direct link to the pharmaceutical industry, and this program is open to all businesses where process engineers play a role.”

The only prerequisite for the program is ChE 210. Therefore, it’s open to a large number of CBE undergraduates – from sophomore to senior. This semester the program has five sophomores, six juniors and ten seniors. Thirteen of the students are female.
“The opportunity these students have – what they have delivered so far and will continue to deliver is amazing,” says Kaiser. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved.”

Any industry representatives who would like information about how to get involved with the program should contact Kaiser at jkaiser@iastate.edu