sealPurdue News

May 2, 1997

Theory gets practical at Purdue

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- If you can't find your way out of the forest, nobody cares whether you can name all the trees.

That's just one reason why faculty in two departments at Purdue University took a critical look at exactly what they're teaching.

For example, the faculty in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources decided that all new students would be required to take to the hills, deep in the woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, for five weeks.

The summer practicum, euphemistically known as "summer camp," is no walk in the park. The faculty push these future natural resources professionals to write and defend a management plan for a tract of woods, assign computer homework in the evening, and wake them up early. The lesson plans force the upper-level students to apply the abstract principles they learned in the classroom and to make decisions. It's also the perfect setting for perfecting wilderness skills.

"One of the topics is orienteering," says Clark McCreedy, a wildlife specialist and camp director who enjoys dropping campers off in the middle of nowhere.

"There's some immediate application: If they can't find their way out of the woods, they don't get to graduate."

Navigating their way through the rocky shoals of public concern over environmental issues is covered as well. Camp students visit a logging operation, a tribal forest, and a small community, collecting different perspectives on how the land can or should be used from loggers, Native Americans, environmentalists, and the general public -- people the students may never have had contact with before. Awareness of how social concerns can drive natural resource policy is one of the best lessons Purdue can teach them, says Department Head Dennis LeMaster, in a field that has become as much about public policy conflicts as biology.

"The days of the expert-knows-best forester are gone," LeMaster says. "The role of the natural resource professional is to assist people in the development of socially acceptable, biologically feasible, and economically viable policies."

Demands for new skills also have led other Purdue departments down the same path.

For example, there's a type of shock many engineering graduates face their first day on the job. After spending four years mastering the math and science fundamentals and one semester on design, guess what they're expected to do? Design.

"Design is the creative expression of engineering," says Martin Okos, professor of agricultural and biological engineering. "There is no one way to design a process to create a product, so the creativity of the engineer is constrained only by the physical properties of the raw material and the engineer's grasp of the basic principles."

The lack of student exposure to design is a valid criticism of most engineering education programs, he says.

"One experience in the senior year is not enough," says Purdue doctoral student and lecturer Heidi Diefes. She's been working with Okos and associate professor Mark Morgan to develop FOODS -- Foods Operation-Oriented Design System -- a computer modeling program that lets students experiment with a virtual food processing production line.

In many ways food engineering, she says, is a lot like chemical engineering, only harder. In chemical engineering, one test tube of copper sulfate is much like another. Not so for foods. "Not every potato is the same. This is unique to food engineering, so students must have a supporting background in biology, biochemistry and food chemistry. You're trying to track the destruction of vitamins, the degradation of proteins, while avoiding off-flavors and bad appearance," Diefes says.

With so many variables to master, food process engineering students get little opportunity to experiment with designing production lines. "If they were to do the calculations by hand, a student would take weeks to study all the components in a single lab exercise," Diefes says.

With FOODS, professors can introduce design concepts earlier in the curriculum. Okos says students now can see where the fundamental principles they're learning can affect design because they can evaluate the results almost immediately.

"One student said 'this is really cool,' which is high praise from a student," Okos says. "The program allows them to see the response when they change a variable. This way they don't lose the beauty of design; they don't get lost in the numbers."

For the upper division classes, FOODS becomes as much a tool as a teaching aid. Seniors can use the program to build and test their own system creations.

Okos says the experience should improve graduates' chances for success that first day on the job. Even better, he says, their familiarity with design principles will be one of the reasons they got the job in the first place.

Source: Clark McCreedy, (765) 494-3584; e-mail,
Heidi Diefes, (765) 494-5731
Martin Okos, (765) 494-1167
Dennis LeMaster, (765) 494-3590
Writer: Chris Sigurdson, (765) 494-8415; e-mail, sig@ecn.purdue.ed
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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