Context-based learning teaches chemical concepts in a real world context

This context/problem-based learning (C/PBL) resource is part of a collection to use with undergraduate students. This 5 credit module is based on the following scenario:

An Australian billionaire who owns various oil exploration, and refining & marketing companies, also has developed a new ski resort. After the launch press conference his exotic sports car breaks down in front of the worlds press. The engine of the vehicle has been completely seized as the oil has gelatinised. The billionaire sues Northland Petroleum (NP) who formulate the oil used in his car, and threatens to sever all his other commercial links with NP. The Chairman of NP asks his head of technology to set up a task to quickly investigate and respond. In teams, your students will be that task force. 

Tutor support

The following documents are available on request from

  • introductory tutor guide, including details for workshop 1
  • guide to workshops 2 and 3
  • analytical results for workshop 2
  • guide to student worksheets

Module structure

The team are asked to investigate and report on 8 different areas relevant to the problem, from general information about engines and lubricants to detailed analysis of polymer solubility. These areas are set out as 8 separate worksheets, which can be approached in any order, by a single team member or a group. Each worksheet will (hopefully) be informative and challenging in its own right, and teams are asked to write a short report about each one. However they each feed at least one factor into the overall question of ‘what happened to the billionaire’s car?’ For example, in discussions with the car manufacturer it turns out that the car has a dry sump engine, with a heater that automatically warms the oil reservoir before start-up. And its on the same fuse system as the car’s heater which the billionaire has disconnected as ‘We’re in a warm country’…So after having jointly or individually completed each of the worksheets the teams can start to pool their information and use it to assess what happened to the car, report on it, and recommend better ways of formulating the oil in future.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students should be able to:

• outline and compare a range of analytical approaches used in engine oil testing and evaluation, including 31P nmr, Differential Scanning Calorimetry, and Size Exclusion Chromatography

• recognise and discuss the main components in engine oils, their functions and their degradation in use

• understand and explain the main factors determining polymer structure, its degree of crystallisation, and how that affects both its handling before blending and its behaviour in solutions

• analyse, summarise, and communicate complex information , using it to problem-solve a realistic technical service issue

• work with others on a team task and meet a joint deadline

The skills of problem-solving, team-work, and the ability to summarise and clearly communicate complex technical information are highly valued by employers.