Article excerpt

Raise a glass to teaching that connects students' interests with fundamental concepts.

BREWING BEER continues to teach me a lot about engineering. I just wish I had been more interested in it as an undergraduate.

During my junior year, I struggled with some fundamental concepts in thermodynamics. Carnot cycles and heat engines were foreign to everyday life, and I had little tangible experience with heat exchangers. It was not until years later that I encountered a situation where I needed to remove a significant amount of heat from a system. This emerged when I picked up home-brewing as a hobby. Tending to a large kettle full of boiling wort (unfermented beer), I needed to cool that first batch of home-brew to room temperature as quickly as possible and transfer it to a fermentor, to prevent contamination by wild yeast. With my home-brewing credibility on the line, I tackled the problem by running cold water through a hollow copper coil submerged in the wort. As this heat exchanger chilled the wort, distant memories of that thermodynamics class returned and I had one of those gratifying "aha!" moments that come when classroom concepts connect to one's personal interests.

On that note, 1 offer three cheers for beer, an enthusiasm shared widely by college students.

Bringing beer into the classroom (figuratively speaking) is one way of capturing students' attention at times when topics are difficult or boring to learn. Reach back in history and you can even introduce Guinness stout into a statistics lecture on t-distribution. (William Sealy Gosset, writing in 1908 under the pseudonym "Student," described the t-distribution that the Irish beer manufacturer used to assess the quality of brewery ingrethents.) Other examples abound at the intersection of beer, engineering, and history.

The fundamental concepts of energy and mass conservation can be beautifully demonstrated in the brewing process, and a class trip to the local brewery would reinforce these principles and win an instructor brownie points with students. …