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What is engineering chemistry?

Engineering chemistry is a programme that interfaces applied chemistry and chemical engineering. In Canada it is recognized and approved by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board as an engineering discipline and the Canadian Society for Chemistry as a subject. Students are therefore trained as both scientists and engineers.

Do Ugandan universities offer this programme or not? No. Do we need it? Yes, in order to understand chemistry as a science and its application in the manufacturing, production and processing of products using locally available materials and manpower.

No meaningful imagination and innovation can take place if vital information is not known. Take an example of chemistry in building and construction. Knowledge of chemistry as a subject and its application unravels properties of the materials used in every industrial, commercial, residential and mixed-use projects. In the lack of such knowledge, Ugandans and Africans will stay on the importation end while the real manufacturers who command this knowledge will always buy our raw materials and ‘add value’ to them. We will continue to buy the final products at killing prices. This cycle is not only in coffee processing, but also in the building construction industry.

Never mind that the terminology below may sound too complicated because of our limited knowledge of chemistry, but the following materials are used in the construction industry:

Roofing: Polyurethane elastomers phthalates vinyl;

Walls: Vinyl acrylics polypropylene solvents phthalates;

Plumbing: Vinyl polyethylene acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS);

Door Frames: Epoxies wood composites (made with formaldehyde).

Need I confuse you further with the scientific and trade names if you hardly command basic engineering chemistry? Yet I hardly covered materials used in the sectors of roads and highways, water and sanitation, energy and other structures!

But how did we get here?

According to analysis of available information, chemistry is among the worst done science subjects at both ordinary and higher levels in the Ugandan secondary schools. More students fail or refuse to take chemistry at higher and university levels because it was progressively poorly done. Many teachers are poor at teaching it, helped by the lack of laboratory equipment. One engineering lecturer at Makerere University who preferred anonymity lamented: “Chemistry is no longer a core subject for all branches of engineering. How do you expect students to love it or get motivated to do it if many of them did not actively use pipettes, bunsen burners, gas and laboratory reagents during their formative years in Senior One and Two and Three?” Another one said that there was poor response to get students to study environmental chemistry at the university.

The tragedy without engineering chemistry

Without graduates of engineering chemistry, Uganda will continue to lack future experts in the chemistry behind industrial processes, who can use their strong background in both chemistry and chemical engineering to treat problems of industrial interest. There is need for a curriculum that should integrate a core of chemistry with a body of engineering in a manner that allows chemical knowledge to be put into practice. In this programme, students would study applied organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, reactivity principles, methods of determining structure, and they would acquire knowledge of materials at a molecular level. They would be able to apply this core chemical knowledge to design and improve processes and materials, ranging from fuel cells to pharmaceuticals. Students would choose electives and end-of-study dissertation projects in the biosciences, environmental sciences, material sciences, process chemistry, depending upon their interests.

Such graduates would then find or create job opportunities in the public and private sector, working in traditional chemical processing, new product development, manufacturing, materials science, biosciences, and environmental stewardship and emerging technologies.

What should we do?

A combined effort of public and private enterprises needs to work with the Ministry of Education, higher institutions of learning and the professional bodies to strengthen career guidance for secondary schools and rejuvenate mathematics and science clubs. Innovation schemes such as biogas plants will spring up to power laboratory equipment. Science teachers will be assisted and motivated to create income-generating projects that will motivate them and students to perform better in mathematics and the sciences like chemistry. 8M Construction Digest is willing to coordinate such a programme.

Career path in engineering chemistry

A future expert in engineering chemistry may grow from grassroots as follows:

At both primary and secondary levels, excellence is not only a requirement in the sciences but also in subjects such as English, geography, economics, and others. This is because knowledge from all these subjects strengthens the base in this education.

It is needless to say that all science subjects at O-level, particularly physics, chemistry and mathematics should be done and passed very well. At A-level the subjects to offer are physics, chemistry and mathematics (PCM) aspiring engineers. The interested reader needs further research to get more detailed information in order for him or her to be able to make a decision on whether or not engineering chemistry is a career of choice.

By Eng. Hans JWB Mwesigwa

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