The Chemistry behind That Candy Corn: A Professor’s Novel Approach

October 23, 2013

 

Margot Vigeant headshotStanding in line at the grocery store during Halloween season, it’s impossible not to notice all of the candy strategically placed at the checkout. But ask yourself: Is it really candy? True candy — crystallized sugar formed by boiling down sugar syrup — is not, in fact, easily found. Why, then, are products labeled the way that they are? Is it more cost-effective to produce sweets with ingredients other than sugar, or does the consumer prefer them? These are some of the many questions that Margot Vigeant, 1998–99 AAUW Selected Professions Fellow, poses to her chemical engineering students as she focuses on real-world problems in food processing and product design.

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Vigeant, who was recently promoted to full professor of chemical engineering at Bucknell University, takes a novel approach to her classroom. Interested in engineering pedagogy, she is trying to mainstream the idea that inquiry-based experiments are a more hands-on, engaging method than the traditional lecture. This year she had the opportunity to build a course from scratch, which is mainly “driven by students’ questions, presenting problems that trick them into asking questions that follow the course objectives.” Vigeant loves this technique and believes one of the joys of teaching comes “when a student poses a question that is a new thing to think about, and we go off and figure it out. It’s a fun exploration. We work through the process together.”

Margot Vigeant

Vigeant blends work and play on Bucknell’s campus.

When asked about the presence of women in engineering, Vigeant said simply, “Things aren’t perfect, but things are better.” Interestingly, at the undergraduate level at Bucknell, she has noticed that the gender balance is about 50-50 in chemical engineering, though the ratio in other branches of engineering may be more skewed. The disparity seems to kick in once students reach the master’s or doctorate level. In Vigeant’s case, of the 10 women in her program, only she came away with the doctorate degree. Her Selected Professions Fellowship came during her last year in the doctorate program, and it gave her the “financial resources to wrap everything up, not pick up another job.”

Vigeant is the second woman to achieve full professorship in chemical engineering at Bucknell, and only a year behind the first. She has a very practical view of success. “The secret: There is no secret — you work hard. It’s not talent, or innate skill, or whatever. Mostly it’s just working hard.”

Margot Vigeant’s 1998–99 Selected Professions Fellowship was sponsored by the Vera Huckel American Fellowship and the AAUW McLean (VA) Branch American Fellowship.

By:   |   October 23, 2013

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