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A New Chemical Engineering Curriculum for a New South Africa: Assessing the Impact of Duncan Fraser’s Three Decades of Educational Research and Reform

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Engineering education research is a relatively new field focused on improving engineering education to support the success of a broader range of students and be more relevant to the needs of contemporary society. In this article, we look closely at the impact of a pioneer in this field, the late Professor Duncan McKenzie Fraser, who began a focused and scholarly programme of work during late apartheid in South Africa, looking closely at the challenges experienced by chemical engineering students at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he worked. We analyse Duncan’s early experiments in improving teaching and curriculum which led into a recognized body of engineering education research. These research findings informed a programme of curriculum reform at UCT, the first phase of which involved the creation of some new courses and the modification of parts of the curriculum, and the second phase of which involved a full-scale reform of the entire curriculum. The analysis shows how engineering education research was used to inform innovative curriculum design that was closely attuned to contextual needs, specifically regarding stark racial disparities in student success, and also evolved later to embody a focus on sustainable development. Overall, there are significant lessons for the growing field of engineering education, which continues to grapple with the disjoint between research and improved practice—crucially showing the need for long term engagement, as exemplified in this programme of work which spanned over three decades.

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  1. For readers interested in further biographical detail, there are other published pieces that can be consulted: A profile piece in Chemical Engineering Education (Case 2007), a profile in the “Engineering Education Pioneers” project the University of Washington ( and an obituary in the IChemE magazine.


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Correspondence to Jennifer M. Case.

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Curriculum Structure and Content

The new curriculum has three components:

  • Core Chemical Engineering

  • Core Science and Mathematics: Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and Statistics

  • Electives: Science, Advanced Engineering, Humanities, Language and Free electives

While the standard programme is structured over 4 years, there is also a formal 5-year programme, allowing students to spread their workload out over an extra year, and incorporating additional academic support.

The three main components of the new curriculum, as well as the details of the 5-year programme, are further elaborated in the following sections.

Core Chemical Engineering

For the first 2 years, the core chemical engineering courses are large whole-year courses (Chemical Engineering I and Chemical Engineering II). What was originally conceptualized as Chemical Engineering III now comprises three courses; the first semester content was made into its own course (Fundamentals of Chemical Engineering III) and the second semester was further split into an advanced theory core course (Non-ideal Systems in Chemical Engineering) and a dedicated project course (Chemical Engineering Project Management & Unit Operation Design).

For the first five semesters, the chemical engineering core courses run in 6-week blocks (in 1st year) or 3-week blocks (in 2nd year and the first half of 3rd year). The first two-thirds of each block is theory intensive, with lectures and tutorials regularly interspersed in a one-to-one ratio. The final one-third of each block is dedicated to project work related to the block theory, to ensure integration between theory and practice.

The main 4th year core courses (Process Synthesis & Equipment Design; Business, Society & Environment; Chemical Engineering Design; and Chemical Engineering Research) remained relatively unchanged from the previous curriculum. In addition, the content of the previous Process Dynamics & Control and Professional Communication Studies courses was moved to earlier years (as is discussed in the “Theory” and “Practice and Strands” sections), which has opened space for elective courses.

The course Chemical Engineering I incorporated new material on the topic of sustainability literacy for chemical engineers. For the following three semesters, each semester is divided into four theory blocks with the following overall themes: Fluid and Solid Systems, Energy and Thermodynamic Systems, Reactor Systems, and Interface Systems. By cycling through these four themes over three semesters, the students gradually build up their fundamental conceptual knowledge, inspired by the concept of the “spiral curriculum” (Dixon et al. 2000). By the middle of 3rd year, students have thus concluded their basic chemical engineering theory education and can move on to advanced engineering theory and practice.

In the second semester of 3rd year, Non-ideal Systems in Chemical Engineering deals with core advanced chemical engineering concepts: unsteady state balances; dynamic systems and control; and advanced (non-ideal phase and membrane) separations. Chemical Engineering Project Management & Unit Operation Design, though largely a project course, teaches project management and associated theory. In Business, Society & Environment in 4th year, students learn the foundational finance, risk and ethics theory to underpin their engineering practice in these areas.

In this curriculum, what is termed “Practice” comprises project work in areas of design, as well as laboratory-based practicals and industrial exposure.

For the first five semesters, project work is the vehicle through which the following strands are taught, developed and practised: flowsheeting and equipment heuristics; environment, society and economics; health and safety; teamwork; professional and technical communication; computing; and drawing. Each of these strands therefore runs through (and is built up) across the whole curriculum and, in turn, helps to develop the graduate attributes.

For each strand, an overall strand-convener provides the necessary content lectures and ensures coherence and progression over the 4 years. It should be noted that dedicated drawing, computing and communication courses (which were all present in the previous curriculum) have been discarded in favour of the requisite skills and knowledge being taught, applied and assessed in the project/strand space.

As in the previous curriculum, project work continues (and intensifies) in the second half of 3rd year and in 4th year, culminating in the assessment of most of the graduate attributes.

For the first five semesters (i.e. from the beginning of 1st year to the middle of 3rd year), in each semester, there are two laboratory-based practicals (three in Fundamentals of Chemical Engineering III) related to the theory and/or project content. In Non-ideal Systems in Chemical Engineering, there is a control practical designed to provide deeper insight on the theoretical concepts studied and develop hands-on practical skills.

For the industrial exposure, a similar structure has been retained as was in the previous curriculum, i.e. guest speakers and plant visits during the semesters in 1st year; the 1-week industrial field trip during the mid-year vacation in 2nd year; and workplace experience during vacation time (either end-of-year in 2nd, 3rd or 4th year; or mid-year in 3rd or 4th year).

Core Science and Mathematics: Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and Statistics

In 1st year, the core chemistry and mathematics courses remain unchanged from the previous curriculum, as do the core mathematics courses in 2nd year. What was previously a core requirement of second-year chemistry is now an elective, as shown in the next section.

However, in 1st year, only the first half of the physics offering (Physics A for Engineers, covering mechanics, properties of matter and thermodynamics) was retained. The second physics course (Physics B for Engineers, covering vibrations and waves, electromagnetism and electricity) was omitted in favour of a new course developed for purpose, the Statistics for Engineers course.

Electives: Science, Advanced Engineering, Humanities, Language and Free Elective

An enlarged component of elective coursework is an integral part of the new curriculum. There are five categories of elective courses in the new curriculum:

Science electives: Students choose one of the following three science elective streams and do the second-year course(s) in these areas: chemical sciences, biological sciences or mineralogical sciences.

Advanced Engineering electives: From the second semester of 3rd year onwards, students may now choose between several advanced engineering electives, with the advanced engineering credit load having doubled from that in the previous curriculum. Most of these electives are linked to research specialities in the Department of Chemical Engineering, but students can also apply for approval to take cognate advanced engineering electives in other departments.

Humanities elective: Students must take one Humanities elective. While the previous curriculum allowed any course offered by the Faculty of Humanities, the new curriculum has narrowed this to courses that broaden students’ capacity to cope with the complex social questions they may be exposed to in their professional practice. These courses must also require students to read academic texts and produce extended written responses, usually in the form of essays.

Language elective: In the new curriculum, students are required to one Language elective, at a level with which they are not familiar in that language. The aim of this is to enhance their ability to communicate with a wider variety of people in the workplace.

Free elective: As in the previous curriculum, students are also required to take one further course of their choice.

Five-Year Programme

Because of the recognition that there is a continuum of student-preparedness in the entrance cohorts, the department has long aspired to “academic development in the mainstream”. This was a key educational objective of the new curriculum, as was discussed earlier. It has nonetheless been found that there is still a need for a formal 5-year programme. However, from 2014 onwards, there were two major changes.

Firstly, for students across the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at UCT, it was found that, because of the vagaries of Basic Education assessment, the National Senior Certificate was not a reliable indicator of which students could manage the 4-year programme and which needed to enter the 5-year programme. Therefore, all students now enter the 4-year programme and can make a voluntary transfer to the 5-year programme (after counselling) in either the middle or at the end of the first semester. This means that students themselves, with input from departmental academic counsellors, have a chance to make an appraisal of how they are able to cope in the 4-year programme and, if necessary, transfer voluntarily to the 5-year programme.

The second change is in the structure of the 5-year programme. When the new curriculum was developed, care was taken to develop a 5-year programme that was coherent and followed the same principles as the 4-year programme. As has been mentioned, a key principle is for students to move through the large core courses in cohorts.

In the previous curriculum, students in the 5-year programme completed the 1st year Chemical Engineering course in their first year then went through the next few years with a partly coherent mix of courses from different years. However, from 2013, these students took only service courses in their first year (with additional support in mathematics and physics courses) then joined a cohort in Chemical Engineering I in their second year in the programme.

Thus, while they take their Level 2 mathematics courses (one of which is also provided with additional support) and some of their electives in different years to the peers in their cohort, they move through the core courses with the same cohort for 4 years. By the time they reach the beginning of their fourth year, they also take the advanced engineering electives at the same time as their peers and are essentially on the same programme, except for a slightly lighter load with regard to Humanities, Language and Free electives.

Implications for Teaching and Learning

This new curriculum has had significant implications for the structure of teaching in the 1st to 3rd year core courses. Rather than teaching a stand-alone semester course, academic staff are charged with teaching a theory block and/or taking charge of a term or semester project and/or convening a strand. Each of the core courses has a single convener to ensure consistency across the delivery of the blocks, projects and strands. Each block has a dedicated set of teaching assistants who attend lectures, assist with tutorials, provide support for the project work and, in addition to these formal contact sessions, are available for daily student-consultation sessions. For pragmatic reasons, there are also specialized teaching assistants for laboratory-based practicals and computing in 2nd and 3rd years.

Similarly, the learning structure has altered for students in the 1st- to 3rd-year core courses. Instead of taking several interleaved courses each semester, students learn theory in intensive blocks and immediately apply it in project work to deepen their knowledge (with theory assessments both immediate and longitudinal/summative, as described in the “Assessment” section). Strand content is provided as it is needed for a particular project-segment so, again, students apply the skills and knowledge immediately.

In 1st year, there is a new project (in teams of three) in each 6-week block, with the project teams changing each block. However, in 2nd and 3rd years, the projects run (in teams of four or five) for a full semester (with a 1-week segment in each block). Therefore, students experience project work with both: (a) a wide range of peers, thus broadening their learning network, and (b) the same set of peers over a long period, so they can apply the teamwork skills they have been taught. There are both group and individual submissions, and the format of submissions for the various project tasks is varied (e.g. short and long written reports; orals; posters; etc.) so that students develop the communication skills they have been taught.

In practicals, the students similarly work in teams, with both group and individual submissions using a variety of reporting formats.

The teaching and learning structure (for staff, teaching assistants and students) in the 4th year core courses and in the advanced engineering electives has remained unchanged from the previous curriculum.

The mode of teaching and learning has remained the same in the science and mathematics courses.

Implications for Assessment

The assessment in the core courses for the first five semesters (i.e. from the beginning of 1st year to the middle of 3rd year) comprises the following.

Theory—assessed via class tests for each block, and mid-year tests/exams or end-of-year exams for each semester. This is all individual assessment and has a 60–70% weighting.

Projects and strands—assessed via project reports, oral presentations and poster presentations, with an overall 22–26% weighting. In Chemical Engineering I and II, these are largely group-based but with individual components in some cases.

Practicals—assessed via practical reports and oral presentations. These have 4, 8 and 15% weightings in Chemical Engineering I and II and Fundamentals of Chemical Engineering III, respectively. These are all group submissions in Chemical Engineering I but are equally split between group and individual submissions in Chemical Engineering II and Fundamentals of Chemical Engineering III.

Overall, each course is weighted 70–80% to individual- and 20–30% to group-based assessment.

At the end of each semester in Chemical Engineering II, Fundamentals of Chemical Engineering III and Non-ideal Systems in Chemical Engineering, students who have not attained a pass mark (50%) in the theory assessments for any particular block are required to attend Tutored Reassessment Programmes (TRPs, colloquially referred to as “bootcamps”) for these blocks, during the winter or summer vacations. These TRPs require intensive study of the material under the guidance of an assistant lecturer, who is usually a postgraduate student in the department. Contingent upon their full-time attendance and participation at these TRPs, students may write a further examination (aka “bootcamp exam”), which is set and marked by the block lecturer. If successful, the student then passes the block. In Fundamentals of Chemical Engineering III and Non-ideal Systems in Chemical Engineering, students must pass all theory blocks to pass the course while, in Chemical Engineering II, students must pass seven out of eight blocks and attain a sub-minimum of 40% in the remaining block.

At the examinations committee meetings, the performance of students that have narrowly missed the course pass requirements is discussed holistically and, in some cases, these students are awarded a condoned pass for the course, subject to the approval of the external moderator.

The TRP model was used in particular courses in the previous curriculum but was set up as an integral part of the large core courses in the new curriculum. This, together with the holistic approach to the final progression decision, was implemented to try to allow students to move forward with their entrance cohort, thus facilitating the development of peer-support systems. This approach has been largely successful, with many such students flourishing in later years and finishing with their original cohort. Even those who ultimately fail a large core course (after TRPs and holistic evaluation) join a new cohort. As such they have a whole year to develop new peer-support systems and are not trapped in an incoherent curriculum between two academic years.

In Chemical Engineering I, a similar approach is used, except that students who are struggling after the first semester attend a TRP which covers material from the entire first semester (i.e. not just one block) and the further examination also covers all the material. In the initial few years of the course, a similar TRP was run at the end of the second semester. However, after evaluation of performance data, it was found that students who still needed a TRP after the second semester of this course were typically students who had also failed several of the science and mathematics service courses and thus could not progress to 2nd year anyway. Therefore, it was decided that these students (if not excluded completely) were better served by repeating Chemical Engineering I.

In the advanced engineering electives, the assessment mode and weighting vary according to the type of course. Some electives are almost entirely theory-based (with assessment through class tests and examinations), while others are based on laboratory-based practicals (with assessment through practical reports).

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Case, J.M., Heydenrych, H. A New Chemical Engineering Curriculum for a New South Africa: Assessing the Impact of Duncan Fraser’s Three Decades of Educational Research and Reform. Process Integr Optim Sustain 7, 957–970 (2023).

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