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University of Wisconsin - Madison College of Engineering

James Rawlings.
James Rawlings
Chemical and Biological Engineering

A longtime proponent of technology–enhanced learning, Paul A. Elfers Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering James B. Rawlings draws on a suite of new and existing technological tools to engage students in such subjects as chemical process modeling and computational modeling of reactive systems.

In four chemical and biological engineering courses, Rawlings capitalizes on the powerful campus wireless network to transform simple campus classrooms into interactive teaching laboratories in which he and his students use laptop computers to tackle web–based problems in real time. Among these courses is CBE 255, Introduction to Chemical Process Modeling, a required course for sophomores that launched in 2007. Rawlings collaboratively developed the course with colleagues in engineering physics and civil and environmental engineering under an engineering problem–solving with computers linked–courses project.

In CBE 255, students in small groups use laptops to access online modules in which they solve problems and learn advanced computational tools for decision–making in complex situations. “These modules provided information in an interactive format that was searchable, clear and concise in a topic that frequently dealt with scenarios that would have been impossible to replicate within the limitations of a piece of paper,” says a former student. “Graphs, equations, diagrams, data sets, customized MATLAB code, and further resources were all available through these instructional modules.”

While his multifaceted teaching approach has enriched and improved engineering students’ learning experiences on campus, Rawlings co–authored a textbook and supervised creation of a software modeling language that have benefited students and researchers around the world.

Co–authored with John G. Ekerdt, the text, Chemical Reactor Analysis and Design Fundamentals, takes advantage of computing and communications technology advances to prepare students to use computational methods for solving reactor–modeling problems. The 609–page book provides the educational materials to support Rawlings’ technology–enhanced instructional style in both undergraduate and graduate–level reactor–modeling courses. It contains 60 examples and 248 figures paired with online computational software and supports MATLAB (commercial software for numerical scientific computation) and the language Octave for all calculations.

As a PhD student in 1992 (and now an associate researcher) in Rawlings’ group, John W. Eaton authored and is the principal architect of Octave. Compatible with MATLAB, the free, open–source programming language enables students and researchers to solve reactor–design and other modeling problems quickly and robustly. Available for download at, it runs on Linux, Mac and Windows operating systems and myriad university departments worldwide use it. “I see Jim’s passion for a new approach to engineering learning where computer–generated solutions are not treated as a supplement to conventional textbook solutions, but instead computer–generated solutions to complex problems are the solution and play a central role in the education of students about chemical engineering principles,” says a colleague.