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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Best General Education Course: ECH 001: Design of Coffee – An Introduction to Chemical Engineering

An approachable introduction to chemical engineering through the process of brewing coffee


By LILLY ACKERMAN — features@theaggie.org


Whether you’re a coffee connoisseur, chemical engineer, both or neither, the 2023 Best General Education (GE) Course winner, ECH 001: Design of Coffee – An Introduction to Chemical Engineering, has something to offer. It might just be the next GE for you. 

Receiving 30.2% of the votes in a tight race for best GE course, Design of Coffee has been a UC Davis staple for undergraduates since its inception. It was first introduced as a freshman seminar in 2013 and after receiving positive feedback, it was converted into a lab course.

Coffee Lab, ECH001, is held in Everson for all UC Davis students. (Jersain Medina/Aggie)

The course was co-created by professors William Ristenpart and Tonya Kuhl, who teach it together every quarter. Ristenpart also serves as the director of the UC Davis Coffee Center

According to Ristenpart, ECH 001 is designed to give students with no prior experience in the field a fun introduction to chemical engineering. It is this approachability that helps the course attract around 2,000 undergraduate students per year from a variety of majors. 

“There are no prerequisites — so there’s no calculus, no advanced chemistry — nothing that you need from college,” Ristenpart said. “All you need is what you studied in high school. So the way we make it approachable is we take the admittedly pretty complicated concepts in chemical engineering, break them down and, most importantly, illustrate them with hands-on activities in the coffee lab.”

The course is composed of one hour of lecture and two hours of laboratory work each week. The lab component is the course’s biggest attraction; this is when students are able to see chemical engineering in action through the lens of coffee brewing. 

“You can talk about pH all day long in chemistry, but if you go and measure it and taste the increase in sourness as the pH drops (lower pH is more acidic), you have a much more visceral understanding for what pH levels mean,” Ristenpart said.

Lauren White, a fourth-year forensic chemistry major, took the course in spring of 2022. She wanted a fun experience with a unique lab since she had finished up a lot of her required coursework at the time. 

“I chose to take it because a lot of people when I first came to college talked about it being a great, fun class to take — both as a science and non-science major,” White said. “I just wanted something fun that’s not going to be the biggest concern of the world, but I still get to go to a lab.”

Mary Matlack, a third-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major who took the course in winter of 2023, said that the laboratory allowed students to explore how different methods of brewing and roasting affected the final coffee product.

“I would never have thought of how much goes into making just one cup of coffee — energy, water and the different components of literally just the coffee beans themselves,” Matlack said.

The course also provides a fun way to work with peers; the laboratory culminates in a competition between lab groups to see which can brew the best-tasting cup of coffee using the methodology learned throughout the course. 

“I think it was really fun to meet new people,” Matlack said. “My groupmates were super funny and nice, so it was nice to get to have that class interaction. I feel like I don’t get to have that in a lot of my other classes.”

Ristenpart and Kuhl set ECH 001 into motion a decade ago, and they have maintained a serious investment in the class since then, which is part of why it remains so popular every quarter.

“I liked how involved the professors were in the course,” White said. “My lecture professors showed up in lab, and they talked with us and they helped us through things and worked with students. I’ve only ever in my four years of college had one other class where the professor has done that.”

Both White and Matlack would recommend the course to other students. It is offered every quarter, so if you get the chance, consider ECH 001 as an option to give you some GE credit and a new perspective on coffee, something many of us drink daily without thinking twice. 

“I hope [students] take away two things,” Ristenpart said. “The first is an improved understanding of how you could use science and engineering principles to analyze anything, including, for example, a cup of coffee. The second thing is, I hope people come away with a better appreciation for coffee.” 

Written by: Lilly Ackerman — features@theaggie.org