Teaching Chemistry in Attractive Ways

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The University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague (UCT Prague)

When one thinks of studying in the Czech Republic, one thinks of Prague, the educational center of the Czech Republic and home to some of the best universities in the country, including the oldest university in Central Europe. Prague is also considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world, offering (international) students great architecture, exciting culture and nightlife, and world-famous beer.

 




Figure 1.
Prague.

 

The University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague (UCT Prague, Vysoká škola chemicko-technologická v Praze, VŠCHT Praha) is the largest university specializing in chemistry in the Czech Republic. Its origin goes back to the former Prague Polytechnic, which today is called the Czech Technical University in Prague (CTU, České vysoké učení technické v Praze, ČVUT)—one of the largest universities in the Czech Republic and one of the oldest institutes of technology in Central Europe.

Chemistry was taught at CTU from 1806. After the restructuring of the university in 1920, the College of Chemical and Technological Engineering (Vysoká škola chemicko-technologického inženýrství, VŠCHT) was established as a faculty. In 1953, this college was spun off from the CTU in Prague and has existed as an independent university (UCT Prague) ever since.

However, there is much more than Prague. With a great deal of commitment and innovative spirit, Dr.-Ing. Tomáš Herink, a member of ORLEN Unipetrol's Board of Directors, Litvínov region, Czech Republic, and Dr.-Ing. Jaromir Lederer, former Managing Director of ORLEN Unipetrol's R&D Center, and colleagues have created an option to study chemistry in Litvínov region, a town with approx. 24,000 inhabitants in the Ústí nad Labem region in the north of the Czech Republic. At first glance, the city does not seem to have much to offer: The largest oil refinery in the Czech Republic, ORLEN Unipetrol, is located there and the area is marked by open-cast mining for lignite.

About eight years ago, Jaromir Lederer and Tomáš Herink were both employed by ORLEN Unipetrol and additionally taught at a UCT Prague branch in the town of Most, 12 km south of Litvínov region. The branch offered some 50 students the opportunity to study chemical engineering, but the number of students was in decline.

"We believe in our region and feel responsible for its development and we know that we need clever, capable, and competent people here. So we came to the conclusion that we must take this problem into our own hands and not leave the responsibility to, let's say, our friends in Prague," they told me.

 

 

Improving the Public Opinion of Chemistry

In 2015, Tomáš Herink and Jaromir Lederer, together with Professor Zdenek Belohlav, UCT Prague, wanted to investigate why fewer and fewer young people were motivated to study chemistry and why young employees or customers showed little interest in chemistry. They visited all the principals of the local secondary schools in the Litvínov region and discussed with them why they think this is so. "From the feedback, we learned the following: First, there is no real PR from big industrial companies like ORLEN Unipetrol that tells society that chemistry is something that is needed, something important."

"The second problem is that chemistry is perceived as very difficult, and the schools are lacking young teachers. We need more engaging teaching because when people hate chemistry in elementary school, they will not fall in love with chemistry in secondary school. Something is already destroyed at that stage."

Another problem was that UCT Prague was not as visible in the Litvínov region as it should be. So they started doing something about these problems year after year.

 

 

Transforming the UCT Branch

To make the studies more attractive and effective for the students, they moved the university branch to ORLEN Unipetrol's chemical park, a large industrial plant with refineries and petrochemical production facilities. The University Centre of UCT Prague-Unipetrol was established. This allows the students to be involved in hands-on activities from the beginning of their studies, from laboratories to real industrial processes.

The education is the same as at UCT Prague. Professors from there come to Litvínov or they teach online. So it is a full-fledged education, but it has its own structure. Some industry experts in Litvínov, specially trained for this task, teach the students, and new or non-traditional forms of teaching such as workshops, project-oriented assignments, or short-term internships in industry complete the offer.

"This offer is unique not only in the Czech market. UCT Prague is a state-owned university and ORLEN Unipetrol is their strategic partner. There are some examples of companies having a university, but then it is not state-owned," explains Jaromir Lederer. "We recently also invited the Czech Technical University in Prague (CTU), one of the largest universities in the Czech Republic, to join."

 

 

Learning in the Industrial Plant

"We are trying to develop our own system for training." UniCRE, the ORLEN Unipetrol Centre of Research and Education (ORLEN Unipetrol výzkumně vzdělávací centrum), is directly integrated into the university. It provides its laboratories and staff to help with training, as well as pilot test facilities. Professor Jaromir Lederer was the director of UniCRE before he partially retired, but he continues to teach students.

The students should be involved in research teams from the very beginning. They can get a job as a student assistant at UniCRE right at the beginning of their studies, and thus, become fully involved in research projects within two to three years. The students are paid for these activities. Approximately 20 students take this opportunity each year. 90 % of them stay at the company afterward which is, of course, very beneficial for them as well. The students can also take on auxiliary jobs during the semester breaks, for example, in the control room.

 

 

Training Center

Another component is ORLEN Unipetrol's training center. Here, there are indoor and outdoor teaching and training pilot plants focused on occupational safety and key production operations such as distillation, heat and mass transfer, thermal decomposition, storage, filtration, and measurement and control. It is used for operator training for employees as well as for hands-on training for students. This allows students to learn about industrial equipment from the beginning.

 




Figure 2. Training Center. © University Centre of UCT Prague-ORLEN Unipetrol

 

 

Workshops

The theoretical lectures from Prague are combined with workshops in the respective production engineering plants. In one- or two-day blocks, students learn about catalysis, polymer sciences, refining, petrochemistry, water treatment, environmental issues, and safety. Issues such as economics and employee management are also discussed.

 

 

Learning and Imparting One's Knowledge

ORLEN Unipetrol also works closely with secondary schools in the region. The schools can be supported by a foundation or they receive scholarships for teachers. The goal is to teach chemistry in the region in a different way that is attractive to young people from the very beginning.

Students from the university center are also involved via the so-called tandem teaching program: a student who has just completed his or her bachelor's degree teaches once a month together with the regular teacher at the school. The student tries to make the subject of chemistry more attractive by doing some experiments, explaining a bit more, and bringing in new ideas. "We have motivated one of our partner schools with this tandem teaching system to visit the kindergarten in Litvínov every month to talk to the kids there about the beauty of chemistry in a way that is suitable for small children," Tomáš Herink adds.

Older students take care of younger students, and younger students take care of elementary students—a great concept to motivate everyone involved and solidify knowledge. What you explain to others, you understand and remember better, you can build up self-confidence, and, in addition, the younger kids experience role models.

 




Figure 3. Tandem teaching. © University Centre of UCT Prague-ORLEN Unipetrol

 

 

ORLEN Unipetrol Foundation

ORLEN Unipetrol has established the ORLEN Unipetrol Foundation (Nadace ORLEN Unipetrol) intending to make chemistry one of the best subjects at the regional and even national level. Through the foundation, the company supports teachers, students, schools, the Chemistry Olympiad. They also organize regular student science conferences, chemistry exhibitions, and field trips.

"After five years of foundation work, we have achieved a good success among the local population. For three years we have been the most attractive employer for students in our region," they say.

 

 

Do Not Rest On Success

"With Litvínov, we do not offer a very attractive city compared to Prague, but we do offer an attractive life for chemists in industry with the opportunity to try your hand as a teacher, process engineer, researcher, and so on. Everyone can find what suits him or her best. We realize, of course, that this is not for everyone. We compete with the student life and the big city of Prague," Tomáš Herink says. They rely on human relationships and a good network, as well as proximity to the industry with the opportunity to try out and get a taste of many things, and they want to constantly question what can be further improved.

"Every year we try to develop something new. This year, for example, we are developing a large polymer lab where we would like to have an open polymer reactor made of glass. This will cost a relatively large amount of money, but such open reactors offer students an attractive opportunity to see how the reactions take place or how the polymers are formed on the catalyst," adds Jaromir Lederer.

Their ideas and efforts are starting to bear more and more fruit, they said. The number of students is growing, and students are now applying not only from the region, but also from other cities as well as from abroad—and many of them want to stay in the region after their studies.


Also of Interest

An important partner of the University Center in Litvínov is the Czech Chemical Society (ČSCH). The ČSCH journal Chemické listy has become the main media partner of the University Center and regularly informs also about the activities of the Center. A recent example is:

 

 



 

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