Teaching safety to chemical engineers

Three years ago, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) revamped a long-standing chemical safety program to make it more accessible to students–and now seems to be seeing greater use of the material in classrooms.

For nearly two decades, AIChE’s Center for Chemical Process Safety has been producing 4 to 6 safety modules a year that professors can use as teaching supplements. Part of the Safety and Chemical Engineering Education (SaChE) program, the modules cover broad topics such as runaway reactions and risk assessment, as well as more specific issues such as dust explosion control. Universities paid dues to SaChE for access to the modules.

Starting in 2008, AIChE revamped the program to make it more useful and accessible to students. As part of an effort to provide more benefits to student members, the organization started creating two modules a year that students can access independently and directly online, says Lowell M. Aplebaum, AIChE’s manager for member initiatives. Six modules are available to students now:

  • Dust explosion control: Introduces background for understanding and preventing dust explosions.
  • Inherently Safer Design: Provides information for understanding inherently safer design of chemical processes and plants.
  • Safety in the Process Industries: Introduces the application of chemical process safety technology in an actual chemical facility.
  • Risk Assessment: Provides an overview of the methods used for risk assessment, management, and reduction with examples and exercises.
  • Runaway Reactions: Demonstrate the potential hazards and methods for controlling runaway reactions.
  • Chemical Reactivity Hazards: Provides an overview of the basic understanding of chemical reactivity hazards.

Two more will be added this fall. The modules are freely available to student AIChE members (American and Canadian student members also benefit from a corporate sponsorship program that covers their dues). The modules are also freely available to universities with AIChE student chapters.

The modules take up to 6-7 hours to complete and students can start and stop at their convenience. They incorporate video demonstrations, often in an industrial setting, as well as some reading material. If students make it through an entire module and pass a quiz at the end, they get a certificate. In the last academic year AIChE issued nearly 2000 certificates, Aplebaum says. And “the more certificates students earn, the more they’re asking when more modules will be out,” he adds, noting that students are adding certificate information to their resumes.

It’s not just students that have taken notice of the new modules. Professors are starting to add them to courses as out-of-class assignments, with the quiz scores serving as extra credit or even part of a grade.

Laura Ford, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Tulsa, has made two of the modules a required part of the senior labs she teachers in her department. In the fall, the students do experiments mostly with water and air, measuring the performance of pumps or determining friction factors of different pipes. That semester, the students have to complete the module on safety in chemical process industries.

The spring semester lab involves experiments with 10-ft tall distillation columns. For that class, Ford requires students to complete the module on reactivity hazards.

As for the benefit of the modules, “Sometimes the students hear stuff from us but don’t think it’s important because we’re academics,” Ford says. “They think that industry has a different set of priorities.” Seeing engineers discuss safety issues in their industrial environment helps to cement that safety is important, she says.

David Rockstraw, a chemical engineering professor at New Mexico State University, has been using the modules in his classes for the last two years. The quality of the modules is high enough, he says, that he no longer covers some concepts in class and has the students do the modules instead. “There’s so much material to cover that you can’t possibly do it all,” he says, and adding the modules as assignments has freed up a little lecture time to get to topics he couldn’t previously. Rockstraw includes module material on his exams and gives students additional points for the quiz scores.

Rockstraw’s experience using the modules has been so positive, in fact, that his department has decided to require students to complete all of them before graduation. Some students do complain about the out-of-class burden, Rockstraw says, but the sense of accomplishment at getting the certificates outweighs at least a bit of that. Also, students have reported back that the modules helped them feel more prepared for job interviews.

Rockstraw echoes Ford’s feelings that the modules get some points across more effectively than he can in a classroom. “I can draw a sketch or show them a photograph, but when you’ve got a video of someone standing next to a reactor they work on at their company, it’s a lot more powerful,” Rockstraw says.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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