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Students typically learn the importance of controlling temperature, pressure and flow rate in a chemical engineering process control course through the use of computer simulations. To improve learning for students, Polly Piergiovanni, associate professor of chemical engineering, developed a hands-on lab with Scott Moor, assistant professor of chemical engineering.

“Simulations are good, but there are different kinds of learners,” says Piergiovanni. “Some need more hands-on experience to understand. They need to prove to themselves what I’ve been saying in class is true.”

Moor and Piergiovanni received a $74,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop inexpensive flexible lab kits that allow students to design, build, and test their own control systems. The kits contain Legos and small copper piping that the students use to build their own systems. A microprocessor inside a Lego brick controls a small valve that allows liquid to flow through the piping. The microprocessor is connected wirelessly to a computer with the software to run the process.

“The goal is for a team of students to design, build, and test a system that will keep the liquid level in a tank constant,” says Piergiovanni. “This hands-on experience is making the class more interesting, and we will be tracking whether students learn more.”

“I really like teaching,” continues Piergiovanni. “I enjoy the students; talking to them and getting to know them. I learn something every time I teach.”

A specialist in biochemical engineering, Piergiovanni researches cell-dependent problems that have applications in pharmaceutical and biochemical industries. She investigates insect and microbial cell cultures, looking for cheaper and easier methods to grow cultures, and ways to reduce scale-up effects as experiments with small samples are increased to mass production size.

About half of Lafayette’s chemical engineering majors are women, says Piergiovanni, which is above the national average. “Our graduates have a good number of job offers, and women graduates are always in high demand,” she says.

“Polly was a great source of inspiration to many of us women taking chemical engineering,” says Amy Banko-Howell ’93, salts production superintendent at Mallinckrodt Baker, Phillipsburg, N.J. “She continues to astound me with her dedication to both her home life with three children and her students. I fondly remember going to her during office hours and enjoying her classes, albeit on difficult subjects such as Dynamic Design. Her lectures were always well prepared and she made the coursework seem easy. She is also largely responsible for the creation of the biochemical engineering course to give students a wider view of what chemical engineers do.”


Publications: Piergiovanni and Kristi Dutt Thatcher ’94, “Semi-continuous Operation of the Insect Cell-Virus System,” Biotechnology Techniques, 7:765-768 (1993); Jason Kuruzovich ’96 and Piergiovanni, “Microfiltration of Yeast Solutions: Optimization of Backwashing for Delicate Membranes,” Journal of Membrane Science, 112: 241-247 (1996).

Honors: Metzgar Assistant Professor of Engineering, 1991-94.

Achievements: Adviser to Marquis Scholars, 2002; Excel, honors, or independent study research with 25 students; National Science Foundation grants, 1992, 2002.

Contact: (610) 330-5431,

Categorized in: Academic News