Exploring the Impact of COVID-19 on 4th Year Chemical engineering Students in the UK and South Africa

Session We1:  Nov 10, 10:40 AM


It is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic had substantial impacts on how students experienced their academic studies. For fourth-year students in the United States, social distancing requirements interfered with collaborative capstone projects, cancelled job fairs, and generally complicated students’ transitions to industry or further study. However, looking more broadly, university students around the globe were similarly disrupted by the pandemic. For this project, special attention will be given to chemical engineering programs in the United Kingdom and South Africa. In the United Kingdom, a Bachelor of Science degree takes three years of study, with the fourth year being devoted to either the completion of a Master’s degree or an alternative certificate or training program. Regardless of the exact route students pursue, the focus is on specialization for students in the UK. The South African curriculum places a substantial emphasis on a capstone project in the fourth year, which accounts for the majority of credits students take. To varying extents these fourth-year curricula differ from the US model, and as a result, the impact of the pandemic is similarly divergent. Despite their best efforts, universities simply could not have replicated the experiences of the fourth year in an online environment, for one reason or another. To better understand how students were impacted by this disruption, there is no better spokesperson than the students themselves.

The purpose of this qualitative investigation is to explore the lived experiences of chemical engineering students in their fourth year of study at four universities evenly split between the United Kingdom and South Africa. This study will employ a phenomenological approach to capture the lived experience of the phenomenon of online education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the analysis of a set of semi-structured interviews, this project aims to shed light on how students persevered through the fourth year of their chemical engineering careers. The data for this study is drawn from a larger longitudinal project that includes a total of five years of semi-structured interviews with chemistry and chemical engineering students at six universities, including two US institutions which are not included in this particular study. This work highlights two national curricula that diverge from traditional United States practices, thus broadening the understanding of what implications online education carried for chemical engineering students overseas. Even as parts of the world return to some state of normalcy in the Fall 2021 semester, it is nonetheless valuable to reflect on how the pandemic affected students’ fourth and final year.