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Landmark Lesson Plan: Norbert Rillieux, Thermodynamics and Chemical Engineering

Grades: 9-12
Subject areas: Chemistry, Engineering, Thermodynamics and History
Principal author: Susan Cooper

The following inquiry-based student activities are designed for use in high school lesson planning. The handout and activities will help students understand the advances of Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894), an African American inventor and one of the earliest chemical engineers. Rillieux harnessed thermodynamics principles to invent the multiple-effect evaporator, and his basic design is still used today.

The activities are designed as a ready-to-go lesson, easily implemented by a teacher or his/her substitute to supplement a unit of study. In chemistry, the activities relate to engineering practices and thermodynamics. In history, the themes are the Industrial Revolution, the status of African Americans during slavery and the American Civil War.

Download the complete lesson plan (PDF).

Resources include:

  • Teacher’s guide: Includes the handout, student activities and answer guide
  • Handout: “Norbert Rillieux, Thermodynamics and Chemical Engineering”
  • Student activities: Includes the five activities described below.

Student activities:

While these activities are thematically linked, each is designed to stand alone as an accompaniment for the handout and video. Teachers may choose activities based on curricular needs and time considerations.

  • Anticipation Guide “Norbert Rillieux, Thermodynamics and Chemical Engineering” Students read the handout and explore their own ideas about chemical engineering, thermodynamics and the role of African Americans during the Civil War period. (10-20 min.)
  • History Chronology, Concurrent Events and Reading Exercises Students chronologically order events in the reading and develop connections to the American Civil War and worldwide Industrial Revolution. Students answer questions about Rillieux’s invention based on the reading. (10-15 min.)
  • Thermodynamics and Latent Heat Students chart thermodynamics principles present in the Jamaican Train and multiple-effect evaporator systems. (25-30 min.)
  • Exploring Engineering Practices Students explore steps in engineering practice and relate it to the reading. (10-15 min.)
  • 3-2-1 Contact Students connect concepts from Rillieux’s biography to concepts in history and chemistry. (10-15 min.)

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Portrait of Norbert Rillieux (undated).
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Basic diagram of Rillieux's multiple-effect evaporator under vacuum.
Produced by the American Chemical Society, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program..