Kilimanjaro, an inspiration


Engineering prof makes a class out of a mountain.

Forget making mountains out of molehills.

Rowan University’s Dr. Stephanie Farrell has been making a class out of a mountain.

Farrell, a chemical engineering professor, her husband and five friends climbed to the 19,340-foot-high summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, Africa, during an eight- day trek in August. They brought back tons of photos and the inspiration for class assignments.

Though she’s never made an extreme-altitude climb before, the 40-something mother of one is an avid hiker — think the Rockies — and exercises daily. “I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro since seventh grade when we saw at Outward Bound presentation at my middle school,” the Chatham, N.J., native said.

“I would say the most interesting thing to me was the fact that you walk through so many different climate zones in a short period of time,” said the Philadelphia resident of their six-day hike with guides up the highest mountain in Africa. “You start out at the rain forest, and then you walk through every climate zone until you get to the peak, which is an arctic zone. Coming down is even faster; you do all of that in two days.”

Those changes in climate zones and their impact on the body are part of what Farrell had her students explore in their Principles of Chemical Processes class, the first chemical engineering course that Rowan College of Engineering students in that field take.

“I have been using example problems and homework problems that are related to climbing Kilimanjaro,” she said. “For this particular course, the concepts that apply have to do with the process of respiration.”

“For example, an interesting calculation they can do is a mass balance on the lungs. That basically accounts for everything that goes in and out of lungs during breathing. They can calculate the amount of water that is lost just through the process of breathing. On Kilimanjaro, it’s really very different in different climate zones, with different humidites, different temperatures and different elevations and changes in atmospheric pressure, which all impact breathing.” According to Farrell, climbers can lose a significant amount of water at extreme altitudes — about 2.5 liters a day — and they have to carry replenishments on their backs. Additionally, at the summit, the oxygen concentration is less than 45 percent of the concentration at sea level, and the water content in the air is only about one-seventh of what it is in the rain forest.  This is why so much water is lost during respiration at extreme altitude, she said.

Another thing she experienced related to chemical engineering principles that she shared with her students: at higher elevations water boils at lower temperatures. “So when you get your tea, it doesn’t taste that hot,” she said.

The class also discussed the climate change issue. “We talked about how the glaciers shrink. They shrink by sublimation, when a substance goes directly from a solid to a vapor state without being a liquid,” Farrell said. “I showed them a chart we use in chemical engineering that uses the different phases – solid, liquid and gas – and showed them how sublimation happens on a glacier.”

The Kilimanjaro aspects of the class resonated with Farrell’s students.

“I like doing the Kilimanjaro problems because I feel like they relate to everyday life more. Most of the book examples deal with topics like industry or factory processes, but that isn't something I've ever had experience with. Even though I'm not climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the idea that we can calculate the mass we lose from breathing is cool,” noted Matt Eisenschmeid, a sophomore chemical engineering major from Jackson, N.J. “I also thought it was cool that we could calculate how much water we lose. It's a good approximation of how much water we need to drink in a day.”

Noted Julio Interriano, a sophomore chemical engineering major from Woodbury, N.J., “They [the Kilimanjaro examples] allow students to see that chemical engineers don’t only solve problems in pharmaceutical and petroleum companies.  Their discipline extends way beyond this. Their skills can be used to analyze how the human body works.  We saw what happens to the human respiration on the tops of mountains, and we see that the human body is nothing more then a biological reactor. Why is it important to have students see different perspectives of engineering you might ask? Chemical engineering students will go on to very different fields.  Some will go into petroleum, pharmaceuticals, food science, bearings, and a significant number will go on to medical school. I believe chemical engineering students who will go on to medical schools will benefit greatly from these problems. You see, chemical engineers bring a different perspective to medical school. They will most likely see the human body for what it is: a very intricate chemical process.”

Farrell is anxious to get back to Kilimanjaro, in particular to sleep in the crater at the top of the mountain. “It was a really fun adventure. When I was climbing it I just realized all the things I was experiencing were really chemical engineering,” she said.

Her husband teases her by joking about a beach vacation next time.

That would work as well for the professor. “There’s chemical engineering at the beach, too. Maybe we’ll look at the fluid dynamics of paragliding. We can find chemical engineering in everyday day life, anywhere we go.”