Unit Operations
Laboratory upgrade

Gifts enable hands-on learning experience in Chemical Engineering
The School of Chemical Engineering's (ChE) Unit Operations Laboratory gives seniors the opportunity to prepare for their careers with hands-on experimentation that puts classroom learning into practice.

Last year, the school began upgrades to the lab as part of its improvements to the original part of what is now all referred to as Forney Hall of Chemical Engineering. The project was conceived by Arvind Varma, the R. Games Slayter Distinguished Professor and the Jay and Cynthia Ihlenfeld Head of Chemical Engineering.

Forward Thinking Alan Fox Gift Endows Unit Operations Lab

Over the past two summers, the School of Chemical Engineering upgraded its Unit Operations Laboratory to enhance the education of ChE seniors as they apply their textbook learning with hands-on experimentation in the lab's industrial setting.

As the planning for these renovations began, Arvind Varma, the R. Games Slayter Distinguished Professor and Jay and Cynthia Ihlenfeld Head of Chemical Engineering, also developed a longer-term approach. He proposed that the school establish an endowment that would "provide for both the present and future of the lab."

An endowment for the Unit Operations Lab would finance its annual operational costs as well as the need for upgrades in the years ahead to continue to keep the lab functioning as a state-of-the-art facility.

The forward-looking approach is unique to Purdue.

"To my knowledge, no other ChE program in the U.S. has an endowed undergraduate laboratory," Varma says.

To help the school plan for the future of Unit Ops Lab, alumnus Alan Fox (BSChE '55), the retired owner and CEO of Fox Products, pledged $1 million to create an endowment that will provide in perpetuity for the lab's annual expenses and future upgrades.

Looking back at his time at Purdue, Fox said Unit Ops was one of his favorite courses.

"The hands-on aspect of the lab was an eye opener for a college student," he says. "Learning the mechanics of each operation was like learning the nuts and bolts of doing anything from scratch, and I thought that was extremely important."

Fox says the lessons of Unit Ops have applications both inside and outside of the lab.

"If you base your theories on observations, you get better results," he says.

He used these lessons in his postgraduate career. After serving two years in the military, he went on to become a chemical engineer and applied his experience in Unit Ops to projects that included a successful bid for the design of a dropout flare for the Shell oil refinery in East St. Louis, Ill.

In 1960, his father's health was failing and Fox gave up his engineering job to return to Indiana and take over the family business. A decade earlier, his father retired from his position as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's principal bassoonist and founded Fox Products, a company that manufactures double reed musical instruments including bassoons and oboes for musicians around the world.

As the CEO of Fox Products, Fox transformed the company into a global brand, increasing the company's production from 63 bassoons a year to nearly 2,200.

Fox, named an Outstanding Chemical Engineer in 1992, says he appreciates ChE's leadership in the field and would like to contribute to its efforts. His generosity will allow ChE students to continue to receive the best possible hands-on experience in the Unit Ops Lab. This fall the lab has been dedicated and named the Alan H. Fox Unit Operations Laboratory.

"Alan Fox's generosity will ensure students are always working with modern and relevant equipment so they will be even better prepared for the workforce when they leave the School of Chemical Engineering," Varma says.

"After successfully building the addition in 2004 and renovation of most other parts of the original building in 2012, both essentially entirely with alumni and corporate financial support, the Unit Ops Lab upgrade was clearly the next step toward providing the highest-quality educational programs and facilities to our students," Varma says. "Tying concepts learned in the lectures by providing students with hands-on laboratory experience in small teams, the senior year Unit Ops Lab is the cornerstone of our curriculum."

Enrico Martinez, visiting professor of chemical engineering and lab coordinator, says the changes will provide students with new resources to apply the chemical engineering principles learned in their sophomore and junior years.

To ensure that students will use laboratory equipment and experiments designed for today's industrial reality, Martinez and a group of ChE faculty surveyed similar chemical engineering labs across the country and received input from the Purdue Chemical Engineering Industrial Advisory Council (IAC ). The IAC is composed of leading corporations who partner with the school to help prepare students for work in industry.

The results, Martinez says, led to a complete upgrade of the Unit Operations Lab over the summers of 2012 and 2013. The lab will house five new experiments, including measurement and analysis projects with smaller, benchtop equipment that enhances safety measures and allows students to gather data more quickly.

"We feel the Unit Operations Laboratory at Purdue is an example of how a lab should be run," he says.

The state-of-the-art improvements were made possible through the contributions of more than 50 donors, including alumni and corporate sponsors. Many of the contributors remember how their work in the Unit Ops Lab equipped them for professional success.

William Clark, M.D., (BSChE '82, MS '94), vice president of medical strategy and therapy development at Gambro AB, continued on to graduate work after his undergraduate studies at Purdue. His experiences in the lab prepared him well for the research he conducted in his master's program.

"I hope that the Unit Operations Lab experience offers new opportunities and perspectives for some Purdue students," he says. "Looking back on the research for my master's thesis with Professor Linda Wang, I clearly benefited from my undergraduate experience in Unit Ops."

Bill and his wife, Kathy, hope other students receive similar benefits. The Clarks believe giving back to Purdue is the best way to make an impact and help to prepare students for their careers.

The seven corporate donors to the project include Phillips 66 and CountryMark, whose alumni connections made both personal and company contributions.

Charlie Smith (ChE '80) is president and CEO of CountryMark, an oil company based in Indiana. Smith and his wife, Leigh, contributed to the project because they feel it's important for Purdue to continue to train the best and brightest students with the most up-to-date equipment.

Smith says that industry, particularly an Indiana company like CountryMark, has a unique role to fill in partnering with the University.

"It falls on stakeholders in industry to further the aspirations of the university," he says. "We can go a long way to keeping a top-notch university here in our backyard without turning the burden over to families or students."

Contributing to the Unit Ops upgrade is a step in that direction, Smith says, and part of the company's goal to make a difference in local communities. "Philanthropy is an important way of demonstrating our corporate desire to help others."

Tim Goedeker (BSC hE '84), manager of environmental programs and consent decree at Phillips 66, also contributed a personal gift with his wife, Erin, and a corporate donation.

Phillips 66 contributed to the project as part of its efforts to help prepare the next generation of chemical engineers. Goedeker says he benefited from working in Unit Ops during his senior year.

As a participant in the co-op program, the lab reinforced his industry experiences and helped apply his textbook learning.

"Unit Ops put tools in my toolbox for my career after graduation," Goedeker says.


To support this program, please make check payable to the Purdue Foundation and designate to the "ChE Unit Ops Lab." Mail to the Purdue Foundation, 403 W. Wood St., West Lafayette, IN 47907-2007.