Students finding it difficult to stay awake in class might yet be saved by ECM 1: The Design of Coffee.
ECM 1 began as a freshman seminar but is being offered for the first time this winter as a full-fledged general education course. In the class, students will brew and taste coffee in a laboratory setting aimed at introducing them to chemical engineering.
The class is the brainchild of UC Davis professors Tonya Kuhl and William Ristenpart. Ristenpart attributed the initial idea to Kuhl, but said that he proposed expanding it beyond chemical engineering students.
“She thought of the idea of doing an experiment based on analyzing how a Mr. Coffee brewer works,” Ristenpart said. “I thought that was such an awesome idea that we shouldn’t do it just for students in chemical engineering, but instead offer it to the whole campus as a fun engineering design course.”
The instructors have said the focus of the class is not on a lecture where the students are told what they should learn. Instead, they’d like to emphasize the lab portion of the class, where students learn by doing.
“Beyond drinking coffee and learning more about the processes of roasting and brewing, I think the most fun way to learn is to try things out for yourself,” Kuhl said. “Instead of hearing about a subject, the students will be doing their own experiments.”
No prior experience is required for the class. In fact, when it was just a seminar, Ristenpart and Kuhl encouraged their students not to read too much on the subject ahead of time.
“We didn’t want them to already have expectations about what was going to happen or follow some rote methods,” Kuhl said. “Instead, we want students to make their own discoveries.”
Both Kuhl and Ristenpart believe that even students who love coffee may find their current methods of brewing challenged by their discoveries in the lab.
“They’ll get to taste the resulting coffee and see firsthand how different design choices affect the sensory qualities,” Ristenpart said.
He also said that the brewing process itself contributes a lot to the taste of coffee. In the course of weekly discussions and labs, students will learn about the principles of chemical engineering they will be applying in order to brew the perfect cup of coffee.
The lab will function much like other labs. There will be pre- and post-lab assignments most weeks dealing with the brewing procedures. A notable difference is the rules concerning food and drink, as the class will question how the finished product tastes and will depend on the students and instructors to test that themselves. Students will be encouraged to consume the chemicals used in the lab, which include coffee beans and water.
At the end of the course, groups will be challenged to make the perfect cup of coffee while also using the least amount of energy. An “Iron Chef”-like competition will be held where judges drink coffee in a blind taste test. The score given to each cup is then compared to the energy required to make it, and a winner will be decided.
Ristenpart and Kuhl hope the class will introduce students to new ways of thinking and problem solving typically reserved for engineering students.
“Traditionally, the chemical engineering program hasn’t offered any general education courses, so students outside of our major often have very little idea what chemical engineers do or how they approach problems,” Ristenpart said.
Ristenpart said that this is one of the only chemical engineering courses designed for students both in and outside the field, and that if the original seminar is any indication of what is to come, the response will be positive.
“Based on our initial feedback, we think the students will react extremely positively,” Ristenpart said.
Following Ristenpart and Kuhl’s desire to build excitement for the class and attract more students, Connor Frey, who runs the “UC Davis Engineering” YouTube channel, was tasked with producing a promotional video of ECM 1.
“It’s essentially an attention-getter to get people to look at the class,” Frey said.
Following the low-stress pattern of this introductory course, the promotional video is a parody that describes the basics of the class and why students should be interested.
However, the class filled up before the promotional video was even published. If this interest remains high, Ristenpart and Kuhl stated that they are hopeful they will be able to continue it in future years.
“We hope to make ECM 1 a regularly offered class,” Ristenpart said. “It depends on student demand. Even if you can’t get in the class for winter 2014, please let us know you’re interested by getting on the waitlist.”