Professors have surveyed companies and engineers regarding their use of computers, numerical methods, and software [Davis et al]. They also have surveyed the ChE departments in many universities regarding numerical methods and programming instruction in the curriculum [Dahm et al]. I have some thoughts on the results.
Many companies don't want employees to write software?
That finding from the Davis et al survey has been repeatedly reported [e.g. Kantor & Edgar]. In my case, it was true that both my employers eventually went to commercial software for their process simulation programs and other major application software when they became commercially available. However, I can't imagine how I would have done my job without "writing software" programs. Any company that thinks they can be creative and only use canned or contract software will probably not last long. The argument that employee written programs can't be maintained doesn't really apply to all of the one-time programs needed to solve unique problems.
However, let's assume that the statement "don't want employees to write software" means they CAN use a math program, such as Mathcad, to solve a problem. That would allow the engineer to solve nearly any problem. The engineer would be able to use the huge list of mathematical functions, including functions for solving ordinary and partial differential equations. And, in the special cases such as a non-adiabatic tubular reactor, the engineer could write a "worksheet" using numerical methods. Would that cross the line?
Preference for Excel in industry
The dominant software for computations in industry is Excel [Edgar]. I believe there are several reasons for this fact, none of which lead to the conclusion that it is the best program. First, Excel comes with Microsoft Office, so it's available on all computers in most companies. Second, spreadsheets can do a nice job for a lot of simple calculations, including statistics and curve fitting. The trouble is that when engineers need something better for a complex problem, they try to force it into Excel because of familiarity and availability. The result is a program that is difficult to check and maintain [Edgar], [Kwak].
Historically, spreadsheets filled a void for a period of time prior to the availability of the more capable programs, such as Mathcad, Matlab, Mathematica and Maple. During that time the options were FORTRAN or some other compiled language, or a spreadsheet. Solving a problem with FORTRAN involved knowing a lot of overhead, such as compiler syntax, and mainframe execution protocol. As a result, it took a lot of time before you could get results. Unfortunately, the spreadsheet programs got entrenched in the companies and the companies haven't moved in great numbers to the better programs that don't involve all of that overhead.
It is probably incorrect to assume that the companies don't want anything but spreadsheets. In my experience, companies operate more "bottom-up" than "top-down" than you might imagine. Thus, the software "preferences" in industry are more due to the employees not wanting to move beyond their spreadsheets than to company policy. In the end, companies want good solutions to problems.
What should the university do?
I have seen several articles that have concluded that universities need to move more to spreadsheets with VBA because that is what industry prefers. However, I think the better option is to make several programs available to the student and let them choose. I don't think that the university "picking the winner" is the right approach. If the universities pick Excel, it will only perpetuate a very non-optimal situation.
The course that U. of Colorado uses [Clough] incorporates Excel, Mathcad, and Matlab in a progression of mathematical complexity. The same progression could have been accomplished all with Mathcad, but their approach does expose students to more program options. If the U. of Colorado approach is taken, the course needs to be designed to show the capabilities of all of the programs for each mathematical topic.
Students in the U. of Co. course preferred Excel/VBA at the end of the course. Maybe the course should include having the students trade their most complex examples with each other and ask them to make modifications. This would teach the importance of peer review and program transparency. That is an important factor in choosing a math program. Is it possible that companies don't want their employees writing programs because they are going to write them with Excel, a non-transparent program?
The self-learning option
When planning a curriculum, the universities should take into account that students can learn a lot without formal courses. Most seem to rapidly learn how to use good software. I learned the basics of FORTRAN in a few weeks using a self-paced book. Linear algebra and numerical methods can be learned through self study if reading materials are provided. The student chapter of AIChE or students on work-study programs can provide tutorial support for several programs in the department's computer laboratory.
Knowledge of numerical analysis has been important in my career, but it is currently needed by just a small percentage of engineers. I may have had some exposure in a formal course, but most of what I learned was through self-study in graduate school and as a working PhD. Formal study of numerical methods in undergraduate school may be one reason engineers don't want to deal with ODEs and PDEs in industry. However, the major math packages can deal with most ODE and PDE problems in an easy manner without having to know numerical methods.
The ChE departments are to be commended for all of the innovations in their teaching methods that I see in the literature and on the web. I hope that my industrial experience and observations regarding self-learning may provide useful anecdotal data as they plan their curricula.
Clough, David E. “ChE ’ s Teaching Introductory Computing to ChE Students -- A Modern Computing Course
with Emphasis on Problem Solving and Programming.” In American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition, 2002
Dahm, K.D., R.P. Hesketh, and M.J. Savelski, “Is Process Simulation Effectively Utilized in Chemical Engineering Courses?”, ASEE Annual Meeting, Albuquerque, NM, June, 2001
Davis, J., G. Blau, and G.V. Reklaitis (1993). Computers in undergraduate chemical engineering education: A per- spective on training and applications. Technical report, CACHE Corporation. Draft 3.1.
Edgar, T.F., "Enhancing the Undergraduate Computing Experience" J. Chem. Eng. Education, Summer 2006.
Kantor, J.C. and T.F. Edgar, “Computing Skills in Chemical Engineering Curriculum” pp. 9-21, Computers in Chemical Engineering Education, CACHE Corp., Ann Arbor, MI, 1996.
Kwak, J., http://baselinescenario.com/2013/02/09/the-importance-of-excel/