Wetenschap - 11 maart 1999

Biotechnology student develops virtual membrane separation company

Biotechnology student develops virtual membrane separation company

Biotechnology student develops virtual membrane separation company

Biotechnology student John-Gustav Dunn has developed an Internet-based distance course for teaching MSc students abroad. The course, based on modelling and dynamic simulation, makes the student feel like an employee of a company whose job it is to solve membrane process design problems. For example, a client of the company wishes to separate two cells in a complex bacterial suspension using a membrane process

When a student enters the office of the Virtual Membrane Separation Company he becomes an employee who must carry out projects. Considerable responsibility and initiative are required from the employees. For example in Project 9 the boss explains, Our customer often has major problems with gel layers plugging up the membrane but doesn't really know how that happens. I told him that it's all about concentration polarisation. Could you try to get some information together about this phenomenon? It would be nice if we could build a model in order to explain this phenomenon to him in a more detailed way and to predict gel layer formation.

Employees can look up information in the virtual library; they can also visit the virtual pilot plant and get information about the available membranes by clicking on them with their mouse. After gathering all the information, the employee must complete partially finished simulation models. In the virtual company, real experiments are replaced by dynamic simulations. By changing parameters like the surface area of the membrane, students can experience how the process behaves. This is highly interactive; if you change something, you get a response. That's what motivates students, according to Dunn. He explains that most MSc students already have working experience and are interested in a more specialised education within a specific field. I try to make them feel like an employee instead of a student. They have projects to work on instead of dull exercises.

Dunn's course is intended for post-graduate students who can access it from their home country, using a computer with Internet, an e-mail connection, the Excel spreadsheet programme, and a simulation programme called Madonna, which can be downloaded from the Internet. Before doing this MSc thesis project, Dunn had no experience building websites and did not know much about membrane separation either. However, he did know something about working in a company. He studied food technology in Switzerland, where he specialised in biotechnology. Following his studies, he worked for a few months in a company that constructs evaporators for concentrating fruit juices

The virtual company is a modern way of teaching in which teachers step back, giving students more space for self-motivation and to work on their own initiative. However, teachers are still necessary. I don't believe in having a dialogue with the computer. It's important to communicate with real people like other students or teachers. E-mailing or chatting with teachers through the Internet means that students can get to know their teachers before they come to the Netherlands. This should make them more confident when they come here. Internet communication could also help the teacher to observe progress and difficulties during the course and offer more effective assistance. Important questions could ultimately be listed on a separate web page list for frequently asked questions

Dunn regrets not having had enough time to do some courses on teaching during his MSc programme in Biotechnology. However, he likes the combination of science and teaching as he experienced it during his thesis work. He also enjoyed working on a project that probably will be used in the near future. This is not a project that will end up in the closet as many do. He goes on to explain that he is now sifting through ideas about how to organise a distance learning course. Some parts of the programme still have to be constructed. However the most important step now is to find out if the boat really floats by testing the course to determine whether it actually meets student needs: Students need to follow the course and then give their opinion.

If the virtual company makes it through all the tests, the same kind of basic structure can be used for other courses. Dunn used MS FrontPage 98 to design the course which is ideal software for beginners. Using these basic ideas, any teacher can set up a similar course in a much shorter time, for example a virtual company involved in chemical or food processing, biotechnology or environmental engineering