Freshmen Chemical Engineers have the Sweetest Class on Campus

Noelle Comolli, PhD
Noelle Comolli, PhD

Villanova’s freshmen engineering majors begin their College experience with a course in the fundamentals of engineering and a multidisciplinary design project. In the second semester of freshman year, students enter into their majors.

Noelle Comolli, PhD, department chair and associate professor of Chemical Engineering, introduces new ChE majors to their field through the fun and relatable process of making chocolate. When asked why she decided on chocolate, Dr. Comolli explains, “I want to teach them the different pieces (unit operations) of a process and how they link together, and chocolate is perfect for demonstrating this.”

Before launching this course five years ago, Dr. Comolli visited the Hershey Chocolate Factory and spent a full day in “Chocolate 101” with chocolate engineers. Reflecting on the experience she jokes, “I learned more about chocolate than I ever wanted to!” Dividing the class periods into a combination of lectures and hands on labs, Dr. Comolli begins by exposing students to the chocolate-making process at a basic level, teaching the chemistry behind it and how the process fits into an engineering model. Labs include looking at sugar fermentation, observing chocolate flow rates and testing chocolate hardness. Throughout the course, a variety of chemical engineering concepts are taught using specific stages of the chocolate-making process.

CHE Concept

Chocolate Process

“Unit Operations”/ Chemical Processes

The overall process

Mass Balances/ Reactors

Fermentation

Fluid Mechanics

Chocolate liquor

Heat and Mass Transfer

Crystallization/Confection

Material Properties

Crystallization/Confection

Process Safety

Food safety quality control

Statistics

Product unit packaging

Ethics & Catholic Social Teaching

Bean harvesting/At the farm/
Fair Trade

Sustainability

Life Cycle Analysis


When asked if this topic resonates with students, Dr. Comolli notes, “Using a fun process allows for more discussion of topics that students often view as boring, such as process safety and ethics.” One of the course assignments is an ethics paper regarding the marketing of chocolate to children given the epidemic of childhood obesity. Another topic is fair trade regulations, a practice that the University is committed to when purchasing products.

For the final project, students are divided into groups and given pure baker’s chocolate to create tasty Villanova-themed treats based on the material taught in class. A combination of sweeteners and milk fats can be added to their unique recipes to improve flavor. When creating their chocolates, students are encouraged to think about the cost, quality, ethics and sustainability of the process and final product. At the end of the semester, each team explains its process and provides samples to their classmates. While the final product is judged on taste, it is important that students understand the chemistry behind their creations and are able to explain why a product may not have turned out as planned (taste or texture-wise).

Overall Dr. Comolli is pleased with the way students connect to the course material. She says, “They seem to find the use of a familiar food product easy to follow and enjoyable for their first introduction to chemical processes.”