The Student-engineered Open Textbook: Chemical Process Dynamics and Controls

Jane Park

It is commonly known that students learn by doing—by practicing, rather than simply soaking in, the information that is taught them in the classroom. But it is also commonly known that anyone can obtain information; the internet is chock-full of the stuff; all one has to do is type in a few key words and hit search. The reality is that formal education, aka the classroom, can no longer be, and no longer is, just one side of this perceived divorce in education: the acquisition of knowledge versus the practice of it. 

Open education acknowledges that information is abundant, and that it takes someone to organize, interpret, and make it meaningful. This is one value that formal and higher education still offers the net generation, those bred on Google and Wikipedia. The culling of data becomes the responsibility of professionals, their peers, and their students—the results of which are high quality educational resources available to the rest of the world. 

The Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Michigan has taken this idea of synthesis and run with it. They have integrated the practice of knowledge into class curriculum, by requiring students to contribute to an open textbook in wiki format—Chemical Process Dynamics and Controls. Since 2006, senior chemical engineering students have been developing this resource, building off of the preceding year’s work. The result is a comprehensive and dynamic textbook, available for free on the web, that is both high quality and openly licensed under CC BY. Though you must be a member of the class to directly edit the wiki text, nothing prevents the rest of the world from copying and deriving it for their own uses—even republishing it and distributing it at a low cost in concrete form is possible.

Originally conceptualized by Peter Woolf (Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering) with help from Leeann Fu, the system of textbook creation is anything but haphazard. Each week, a team of students is selected to become “experts” on a particular topic. The students research and present on the topic, adding the relevant text and diagrams to the wiki. The wiki’s content is further vetted by “the faculty and Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs)” who “act as managing editors, selecting broad threads for the text and suggesting references.” They also check for copyright issues, and the students are encouraged to re-use public domain materials.

In contrast to other courses, the students take an active role in their education by selecting which material in their assigned section is most useful and decide on the presentation approach. Furthermore, students create example problems that they present in poster sessions during class to help the other students master the material.

In addition, full class lectures in video format and powerpoint presentations are available on the wiki, also under CC BYCC BY is the most appropriate license for educational materials, since all one has to do is attribute the original authors. The freedoms to copy, adapt, remix, and redistribute are crucial to advancing progress in education.

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