Chemical Engineers and the Things They Do

Chemical Engineers and the Things They Do


To explore the field of chemical engineering and identify the contributions of chemical engineers to society.


This lesson is part of the Energy in a High-Tech World Project, which examines the science behind energy. Energy in a High-Tech World is developed by AAAS and funded by the American Petroleum Institute. For more lessons, activities, and interactives that take a closer look at the science behind energy, be sure to check out the Energy in a High-Tech World Project page.

Middle-school students typically do not make a distinction between science (the study of the relationship between cause and effect) and engineering (the application of scientific knowledge to problem solving). They do not yet grasp that scientific knowledge is the foundation upon which engineering solutions can be discovered.

In fact, research suggests that students “get the point” about engineering first, before they understand what science is all about: “Students inevitably will think about producing desirable outcomes before they are able to do the more analytic form of thinking involved in scientific inquiry.” (Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy, p. 334.)

Even when students understand in a general sense that humans make use of scientific knowledge to solve everyday problems, they may not yet have considered that this kind of activity can be the basis for a job in science and even an entire career. (Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy, p. 17.)

Chemical engineering is one field that offers many opportunities to apply science to real-world challenges. Here is an apt description of both the connection and distinction between chemistry as a science and chemical engineering as a field of industry:

All engineers employ mathematics, physics, and the engineering art to overcome technical problems in a safe and economical fashion. Yet, it is the chemical engineer alone that draws upon the vast and powerful science of chemistry to solve a wide range of problems. The strong technical and social ties that bind chemistry and chemical engineering are unique in the fields of science and technology. This marriage between chemists and chemical engineers has been beneficial to both sides and has rightfully brought the envy of the other engineering fields.

The breadth of scientific and technical knowledge inherent in the profession has caused some to describe the chemical engineer as the "universal engineer." Yes, you are hearing me correctly; despite a title that suggests a profession composed of narrow specialists, chemical engineers are actually extremely versatile and able to handle a wide range of technical problems."

"What is a chemical engineer?"
History of Chemical Engineering

This lesson is designed to help students focus on the ideas of chemistry and engineering—to understand how one is foundational to the other. Students will explore how chemical engineering is like and different from the other engineering professions. They also will study the biographies of chemical engineers. Students who pursue the extension activities will learn more about great achievements in chemical engineering, their own aptitude and interest in engineering, and the kinds of education that can lead to a career as a chemical engineer. An objective of the lesson is to open students to the idea that they themselves might someday use chemistry to make something new and of value.

This lesson can expose students to the exciting stories in science, thus helping dispel the negative stereotype with which students of all ages are familiar: a stereotype of scientific work as dull, lonely, isolated in a lab, and rarely rewarding.

As a prerequisite to this lesson, students should have a basic understanding of chemistry, so that they can make sense of the relationship between that subject and engineering. This lesson would work particularly well after finishing up a unit on chemistry, to help students obtain a sense of real-world applications of the science. This lesson also could work well at or near the completion of a more general technology unit.


Prepare for a class discussion by writing the following definitions on a poster board or overhead display:

chemistry: the branch of the natural sciences dealing with the composition of substances and their properties and reactions

engineering: the practical application of science to commerce or industry

Present the definitions to the class and ask: “If chemistry is ‘the branch of the natural sciences dealing with the composition of substances and their properties and reactions,’ and engineering is ‘the practical application of science to commerce or industry,’ then how would you define chemical engineering? What do you think a chemical engineer does?”

Accept all answers, ask for specific detail, and work as a class to refine offered definitions. The purpose is simply to help students recognize that chemical engineering is the use of knowledge about the properties and reactions of substances (chemical knowledge), plus other scientific knowledge, to solve practical, real-world problems. The purpose also is to introduce the name for the kind of person who does this work: the chemical engineer.

To affirm the definition drafted by students, present a dictionary definition of chemical engineering, such as:

Chemical engineering deals with the design, construction, and operation of plants and machinery for making such products as acids, dyes, drugs, plastics, and synthetic rubber by adapting the chemical reactions discovered by the laboratory chemist to large-scale production. The chemical engineer must be familiar with both chemistry and mechanical engineering. (From Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition)

Next, divide students into groups. Assign each group an industry and have them think about challenges in that industry that might be addressed by the chemical engineer. Ask each group to present its ideas to the class. To help students focus on the question, remind them that chemical engineers make use of their chemistry knowledge and other scientific knowledge to create processes, machines, systems, structures, and products. Examples of industries and possible chemical engineering tasks are provided on the Chemical Engineers and the Things They Do teacher sheet.


The first activity for students is to learn how chemical engineering fits in context with other engineering professions. Students should use their Chemical Engineering Careers student esheet to go to the site, Engineering, Go For It!

Students may work with partners to discuss the questions below. Or the questions can be discussed as a class.

  • How many different engineering fields are listed on this site? (There are 15 fields.)
  • According to this site, what are some specific areas in which chemical engineers specialize? (They can specialize in the pharmaceutical, food, chemicals, energy, and manufacturing industries as well as state environmental health and safety governmental agencies.)
  • From information on this site, what other engineering fields closely overlap with chemical engineering? Explain your answer. (Answers will vary, but may include manufacturing, mining, environmental, biomedical, and agricultural engineering. Students may provide and defend other answers.)
  • If you had to choose a career in engineering, which one might you pick? (Answers will vary depending on student preferences.)

As a second activity, direct students to use their student esheet to go to and read three articles about great feats of chemical engineering from the Inventor Archive:

Students should use the Chemical Engineers and the Things They Do student sheet to answer questions about their articles. See the teacher sheet for sample answers. When students have finished, conduct a class discussion about the scientists, what they accomplished, the challenges they faced, and why their product has been valuable.


Students should prepare a poster of one significant invention that involved chemical engineering. They may select an invention that is featured at the Inventor of the Week site, or that they find from some other source—so long as it pertains to chemical engineering. Have students obtain approval from you on their topic and sources before proceeding. Students should use the Poster Assignment and Rubric student sheet to guide them in developing their poster. Use the same sheet to help with assessment and evaluation.


Two other Science NetLinks lessons focus on how individuals work to apply scientific knowledge in solving real-world problems. They are What Do Scientists Do? and African Americans in Science.

The website, Greatest Engineering Achievements of the Twentieth Century, provides timelines that students may want to explore. The timelines of four topics specifically involve feats of chemical engineering:

The Engineer Your Path section of the Engineering K12 Center lets students explore the different engineering fields, learn how to get and pay for an engineering education, and try out some interactive engineering games and resources.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards