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MIT Technology Review

Diving In

For a century, the School of Chemical Engineering Practice has given students real-world experience.

In 1884, before Arthur D. Little had founded the world’s first management consulting firm or become a well-known pioneer in chemical engineering, he found himself standing in the middle of a paper factory, completely overwhelmed.

Little had left MIT after three years for a job at the newly established Richmond Paper Company in Rumford, Rhode Island. But if he had hoped for a gradual transition from academia to industrial work, it wasn’t to be.

Richmond was the first U.S. paper company to use a sulfite process developed in Sweden. But six weeks after Little’s arrival, the Swedish chemist and the German engineer the company had brought aboard to run the factory abruptly quit—without sharing all of the details of how its paper-making process worked. Left in the lurch, the president promoted 21-year-old Little—the company’s only other chemist and the youngest man at the plant—to superintendent. Later, Little recalled, “I had never managed anything, let alone a plant I knew nothing about.”

First, Little persuaded the workers, upset by his promotion, not to quit. Then he had to figure out how to run the plant. He worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week, to unravel the details of sulfite paper-making. Within six months, the plant was making a profit.

The experience taught Little that industrial work demands not just technical skills but “soft” skills, such as effective communication and people management, and a whole lot of on-the-job learning. So three decades later, as chair of the MIT Corporation Visiting Committee to the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, he proposed incorporating industry experience into MIT’s chemical engineering program. In 1915, the committee recommended launching the MIT School of Chemical Engineering Practice. “The training of chemical engineers involves many problems of unusual difficulty and complexity,” they wrote. “In this profession, more truly than any other, one needs to get into the water to learn to swim.”

Led by William Walker, head of the Research Lab of Applied Chemistry and Little’s former business partner, the Practice School got under way a little over a year later, with students tackling projects in five cities. After a brief hiatus during World War I, it steadily expanded, sending students to such companies as the Revere Sugar Refinery, Boston Rubber Shoe, and Penobscot Chemical Fibre. It has played a vital role in the education of chemical engineers ever since. Today, graduate students spend one semester in what’s now the David H. Koch School of Chemical Engineering Practice, working at two companies, known as “stations.” In groups of two or three—and with guidance from an on-site faculty member—they complete four one-month projects, which often involve unfamiliar technical skills. The students are instructed to make progress however they can.  

The goal of most industrial-scale chemical engineering is to improve the efficiency and quality of manufacturing. So through the years Practice School students have worked on everything from rubber and cement to breakfast cereal. (One group was asked to ensure that every box of Lucky Charms has marshmallows all the way to the bottom.)

The experience pushes students to their limits—which is exactly the point, says Robert Hanlon, SM ’83, ScD ’85, who’s been station director at 15 stations. “The students are overwhelmed intentionally so they learn how to get things done,” he says.

Station director and PhD candidate Harry Watson, SM ’14, did one of his own Practice School projects at Corning. The company gave his team access to an expensive lathe system used in the glass-making process, along with the information needed to program it, and asked the students to make it more efficient. But there was a catch: the wrong commands could bring two parts of the system too close together and cause “burn-back,” potentially a half-million-dollar mistake.

“I would just stand there sweating, just watching this thing, and be like, Please, please, please don’t do anything bad,” he says. “Please start moving when I told you to move.” On more than one occasion, he had to hit the large red “Abort” button.

In a whirlwind final week that echoed Little’s debut as superintendent, Watson spent 15-hour days in the plant supervising runs on the lathe, got two hours of sleep, and worked through the night on his final report and presentation.

Ultimately, his team’s efforts paid off: they figured out how to save as much as half a million dollars a year at each of the company’s two factories that used the lathe. And Watson got to hone the problem-solving, communication, and interpersonal skills that Little deemed necessary for industrial chemical engineers.

Although chemical engineering has changed since Little’s day, as the Practice School begins its second century, it remains the same in all the ways that matter most.