Where Theory and Practice Meet

The Rinker Undergraduate Teaching Lab is a study in the power of alumni

Professor Emeritus Robert Rinker is a former CalTech engineer whose military demeanor inspired affectionate chalkboard drawings of “Bullrinker” — a moose with a buzzcut. As one of the first professors in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Chemical Engineering, Rinker influenced generations of students. In 2007, to celebrate the department’s 40th anniversary, grateful alumni established the Rinker Undergraduate Teaching Lab Endowment. The endowment was funded fully in 2020 and will maintain in perpetuity the lab’s state-of-the-art teaching capability. The ongoing support of engineering alumni exemplifies the power of alumni engagement.

Alumni enthusiasm for the Rinker Lab did more than raise money: Dean Rod Alferness responded by appointing to the lab a full-time professor, Mike Gordon, who holds the Founder’s Chair in Chemical Engineering in honor of Dr. Robert G. Rinker. Like his chair’s namesake, Gordon is beloved by students. All aspiring chemical engineers complete the Rinker Undergraduate Teaching Lab core curriculum.

Students take classes in fluid mechanics, heat transfer, mass transfer, thermodynamics, reaction kinetics, process control and separations. Then, under Gordon’s mentorship, they run these processes in a working chemical plant scaled down to a lab in Engineering II.

“When I started, the lab was in a bad place,” says Gordon. “The experiments needed an update, and there was an opportunity to align the pedagogy with hands-on training.”

Rinker Lab

Rinker Lab
Photo Credit: Mia Nie

In 2011, through the alumni-funded Rinker endowment and other philanthropy, Gordon removed the boiler that powered outdated steam experiments and installed modular experiment units that can evolve with the field. Students now perform new biological enzyme experiments, a prelude to making ethanol for biofuels.

The Rinker Undergraduate Teaching Lab empowers students to learn from their mistakes. How do you design shampoo so it doesn’t rip hair out? What are the properties of hand sanitizer, mayonnaise, eggs?

“Deriving an equation to describe laminar flow in a cylinder isn't nearly as fun as putting egg whites into a rheometer to see how they move,” says Isaac Zacharia, a fourth-year chemical engineering major in UCSB's five-year materials B.S./M.S. program.

Professor Mike Doherty became department chair just before the 40th reunion that catalyzed the Rinker Undergraduate Teaching Lab fundraising effort. He was too familiar with the universal problem of such a lab having no direct line item in the budget.

“It never occurred to me that the answer to the problem of having no budget was to fix it yourself,” Doherty says.

“I knew if you gave students the right equipment, there’d be time left to understand the practicalities of things”

With Doherty’s leadership, over 200 chemical engineering alumni united to modernize the Rinker Undergraduate Teaching Lab. Among them was one of the first UC Santa Barbara chemical engineering students, Jim Heslin ’73. For the department’s 50th anniversary in 2017, Heslin and UC Santa Barbara Foundation Trustee Darryl McCall ’78 offered a joint matching gift to encourage alumni to reach an endowment goal that would fund the lab in perpetuity.

Heslin’s support is rooted in his belief in public education. “I owe my entire professional existence to the University of California,” says Heslin, who went on to law school at UC Berkeley. “All UC graduates must understand that it’s up to them to support the UC system.”

In 2019, McCall made the gift that ensured endowment payments would meet the lab’s ongoing basic needs. Throughout his 12 years of fundraising for the Rinker Lab, he was motivated by helping undergraduates transfer their skills from academia to professions in industry.

“I knew if you gave students the right equipment, there’d be time left to understand the practicalities of things,” says McCall.

McCall, Heslin, Gordon, Doherty and hundreds of alumni have built a lab where undergraduates can practice skills that transfer from university to industry.

“The majority of my class of ’78 have all been successful, but you don’t succeed individually, and the opportunity for philanthropy never ends,” says McCall. “Those of you who consider yourselves successful UCSB alumni: please consider giving back.”

Fall / Winter 2021


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