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Just Like Baking A Cake

By Linda Tutmann

Process engineering is fighting for its image - and for fresh blood, despite the fact that it could help solve global issues such as the energy supply of the future.

Just like baking a cake© view7 - Photocase.com
When Martin Geweke is asked to explain what he does all day, he talks about baking cakes. A cake, he will say, consists of milk, sugar, eggs and flour. He describes how he first stirs the flour and butter together until creamy, then separates the yolk from the egg white, finally adds the sugar and then fills the batter into a baking pan and puts it in the oven. When a sweet smell wafts through the kitchen and the dough rises golden over the tray, he knows the cake is done. Martin Geweke is a professor of process engineering at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, and he thinks of his subject as akin to the process of baking a cake: »Ultimately it's about taking basic materials and creating a product by means of chemical, physical or biological transformation processes«, he says; the question at the heart of his subject is: How do I make individual materials into an end product?

Martin Geweke has talked about baking cakes very often. He does it for school leavers when they visit the university with their classes, holds lectures for pupils at the »Pupils' Lab«, and when the technical subjects hold a Girls' Day, he regales them too with his cake story. While colleagues from other subjects don't know what to do with their graduates, Geweke is dealing with the opposite issue: How can I interest young people in studying process engineering? Finding jobs for the graduates is no problem. »Our students are snapped up incredibly quickly«, says Geweke. The problem is that of many engineering degree courses: nobody seems to really know what the individual subjects are about. This despite the fact that research results from process engineering in particular point the way to solving many global problems, says Geweke, emphasising the importance of his subject: climate protection, water treatment, energy conservation, ensuring food supplies for the population - all these issues require process engineers.


Process engineers work at the interface between biology, chemistry and engineering.
Around 8600 students are currently registered to study process engineering and related subjects such as biotechnology and chemical engineering at German universities. Approximately 100 universities of applied sciences and universities between Hamburg and Darmstadt include process engineering in their subject curricula. Admission restrictions are extremely rare, the only requirement is often a work placement before starting the degree. During this period, future process engineers spend between 18 and 24 weeks learning the basic skills of a mechanical engineer: they mill, grind and weld. Later in their studies, in addition to the obligatory work placements things get theoretical. Depending on location and faculty, students can choose between several areas of specialisation: would they prefer to focus on biology, chemistry, or the traditional engineering subjects such as mechanical engineering? Are they more interested in manufacturing processes or the micro-cosmos? Biotechnology, chemical or biological engineering are the subjects that make up the process engineering family, which is a typical cross-section subject: the course catalogue includes subjects such as radiation technology, fluid dynamics, food chemistry, physics one and two, but also business management and basic law.

»The subject's current development is very interdisciplinary«, says Volker Wiskamp, professor at the University of Darmstadt. »A process engineer has to learn to think within the overall system«, agrees Martin Kaltschmitt, Head of the Institute of Environmental Engineering and Energy Economics of the TU Hamburg-Harburg. It is no longer sufficient to attend a lecture on power plants, he continues; the lecture should be usefully embedded: How does the entire crude oil system work? Which social, ecological and economic aspects have to be taken into consideration in extracting it? Globalisation became part of the subject a long time ago: »We have to promote networked thinking among students«, says Kaltschmitt. For him this includes encouraging his students to look beyond the horizons of the pure engineering subjects, to learn foreign languages and be open to other cultures.

Jochen Rudolph of ProcessNet, a conglomerate of the Society for Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology (Gesellschaft für Chemische Technik und Biotechnologie - De chema) and the Association of German Engineers (Verein Deutscher Ingenieure), also postulates expanding one's horizons: »Process engineers are today employed in a wide range of places. They used to work mainly in the chemical industry; today you find them in the cosmetics industry, at food manufacturers or in medical engineering.« Sustainably developing energy sources, optimising the material use of renewable resources or feeding the ever increasing global population are topics that process engineers deal with, he adds.

Despite all the discussions about internationality and interdisciplinarity, the question remains: in which direction is teaching developing in process engineering? Should it be designed to cover a broad range of subjects so that graduates can work in various industries, or is it better to concentrate on training specialists for increasingly complex processes? »We basically need both«, says Geweke - the specialists and the widely trained all-rounders. How should we design the Bachelor and in particular the Master degree courses in this situation? wonder the subject's exponents. How specific can a Bachelor be? And how broad and interdisciplinary a Master? »The differing opinions divide faculties«, says Wiskamp. Geweke too warns of already designing the Bachelor degree course with a narrow focus: »We mustn't neglect the basics of process engineering.« Apart from the internal disagreements, the subject is finding it less difficult to switch to the dual system than other subjects. »The degree course has always been very structured, that makes switching easier for us, and for the students too«, says Rudolph.

Geweke and his faculty are proof that supporting students adequately is also possible at large universities of applied sciences: the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences is rated "very good" in the CHE university ranking in the fields of study conditions overall, support from teaching personnel, laboratory equipment and reputation in study and teaching. Wiskamp is not happy with the rating his faculty in Darmstadt received. It garnered negative evaluations for study conditions overall, support for students from teaching personnel and the assignment of research funding. Wiskamp believes he knows the reasons: »There are serious problems with the architectural substance of our buildings; in addition, two professors suffered long-term illnesses.« The result therefore didn't really surprise him, he says, but at least the other professors were rated »fairly good«.

It is not only the large faculties like those in Hamburg, Mannheim or Münster that do well in the ranking. Smaller universities of applied sciences such as the Merseburg University of Applied Sciences also have every reason to look optimistically into the future. Professor Heike Mrech doesn't have to think hard to explain this success: the campus has recently been redeveloped, and the university's links to local industry are excellent. But Mrech has another reason to be pleased: process engineering is particularly popular among women. Almost one third of the students are female.

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