Norbert Rillieux, Thermodynamics and Chemical Engineering Mark as Favorite (10 Favorites)

LESSON PLAN in History, Heat, Boiling Point, ACS National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program. Last updated August 26, 2022.


In this lesson, students will learn about thermodynamics through a historical story of a budding Black chemical engineer named Norbert Rillieux. He is credited with creating the process for isolating sugar crystals from sugarcane because of his keen understanding of thermodynamics. There are a series of activities to help promote literacy in the science classroom related to the reading. This lesson could be easily used as plans for a substitute teacher, as most of the activities are self-guided. Rillieux’s story is interesting from a diversity standpoint. He was a free biracial scientist living in the South during pre-Civil War times. This story provides an opportunity to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion in the chemistry classroom.

Grade Level

High School

NGSS Alignment

This lesson will help prepare your students to meet the performance expectations in the following standards:

  • HS-PS1-3: Plan and conduct an investigation to gather evidence to compare the structure of substances at the bulk scale to infer the strength of electrical forces between particles.
  • Scientific and Engineering Practices:
    • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
    • Engaging in Argument from Evidence
    • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information


By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Understand how boiling point and pressure are related.
  • Have an idea of the kind of work a chemical engineer could do.
  • Realize how historical events affected chemists in the past.

Chemistry Topics

This lesson supports students’ understanding of:

  • Thermodynamics
  • Latent heat
  • Boiling point
  • Vapor pressure
  • History


Teacher Preparation: 10 minutes
Lesson: Approximate times for students to complete each activity in the lesson:

  • Anticipation guide: 10-20 minutes
  • Reading: 20 minutes
  • History exercise: 10-15 minutes
  • Thermodynamics and latent heat: 25-30 minutes
  • Exploring engineering practices: 10-15 minutes
  • 3-2-1 Contact: 10-15 minutes


  • Reading document and any lessons that accompany it that you want to include.


  • No specific safety precautions need to be observed for this activity.

Teacher Notes


Lesson Overview:

The lesson includes multiple components as outlined individually below. The Reading is essential for all of the activities. Teachers can choose to do one or all of the included activities. Student handouts and corresponding answer keys are provided for each item described below:

  • Introduction: Take a few minutes to introduce the lesson with a few conversation starters. Norbert Rillieux was born a gens de couleur libre—a free person of color—in New Orleans prior to the Civil War. Being a free African American, Rillieux navigated a fine line between enslaved persons of color and free whites. He was educated in France and returned to Louisiana to practice engineering. There he invented the multiple-effect evaporator, a safer and more efficient device that improved the consistency of sugar produced on plantations. Rillieux is celebrated today as one of the earliest chemical engineers in history, owing to his understanding of thermodynamics, engineering practices and chemistry.
  • Reading: Norbert Rillieux, Thermodynamics and Chemical Engineering
  • Activity: Anticipation Guide
    • Anticipation guides help engage students by activating prior knowledge and stimulating student interest before reading. If class time permits, discuss students’ responses to each statement before reading each article. Then, while they read, students should look for evidence supporting or refuting their initial responses.
  • Activity: History Exercise
    • 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.
  • Activity: Thermodynamics and Latent Heat Comparison
    • Chart thermodynamics principles present in the Jamaican Train and multiple-effect evaporator systems.
  • Activity: Exploring Engineering Practices
    • Students explore steps in engineering practice and evaluate the various engineering applications of Rillieux’s work.
  • Activity: 3-2-1 Contact
    • Students will connect concepts from Rillieux’s biography to concepts in history and chemistry.