The Education of the 21st-Century Process Automation

The Plant of 2025 Is Going to Require a Different Kind of Operator and Engineer. Are Schools and Companies Up for the Challenge?

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Cling as we might to the old ways, if we’re honest, we can see some of these changes in ourselves. Nicholas Carr poses the question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. Part of his answer is this confession: “I’m not thinking the way I used to think. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative . . . , and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. . . . Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. . . The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

Those teaching new engineers and operators see these changes in spades.

“Students today get their information differently than we did,” says Dr. Gerald Cockrell, professor of engineering technology at Indiana State University and president-elect of ISA. “They want response almost immediately. They absorb information differently. They don’t take notes and don’t underline. They want the Cliff Notes presentation—quick and to the point.”

Venkatasubramanian focuses on what he calls the “Google phenomenon.” Students today, he says, “seem to be losing the ability to think through things deeply or contemplate for a long time. Their solution is to go to Google. If the answer’s not there, they often don’t know what to do. We may be creating a whole generation of folks who look for quick solutions. They’re used to getting instant responses, and there may be adverse consequences to that. You need some long-term thinkers as well.”

Lee College’s Dyer sees the same effect on his students. “What we’re seeing and fighting is the direct result of the educational system and the onslaught of Google and Wikipedia. [Students] think knowledge is disposable. Why do you need to learn the theory or memorize facts when you can just look it up on Google?”

The problem with that, he adds, is that “knowledge is not disposable in our industry. If you don’t have the knowledge in your head, there’s no time to look it up when the process is going bad. I tell students that there are certain things that, if you don’t remember them, that lack will make you less efficient and less safe.”

However, if the Google phenomenon has created a different breed of learners and presented us with a different set of challenges, there’s no going back. The Internet horse—and all it implies—has left the barn. The challenge for schools and companies alike is to catch it.

The New Engineering School

This new breed of student also has fostered some striking changes in the way engineering is taught.

Venkatasubramanian says students will still have to go through “the fundamentals of math, physics, chemistry and biology, so they understand what’s going on, but the courses will change a lot—in organization, content, format, and delivery.”

They already have in many respects. Cockrell says he’s old-fashioned in the sense that he still requires a textbook. “Many people just put all this stuff online. The textbook as we know it will probably be something that’s on a computer. According to Forbes, by 2019 there will be more online coursework than traditional lectures. Now with the technology, high-speed Internet, simulation and the other things, I’m able to do online discussions. Students can see me and I can see them. I’ve had students from as far away as Korea.”

To foster this distance learning, Cockrell is working on a National Science Foundation grant to prepare sixty modules for technician training that can be done online from anywhere in the world. “A lot of time,” he says, “Economics simply doesn’t allow that physical experience. We’re forced to go to the students and deliver the content where they are.”

The Internet isn’t the only driver of this changing curriculum. The new breed of student tends to be more visually oriented. Couple this with the increasing power of simulation technology, and you have a different classroom experience. 

Lee College’s Dyer explains that his advanced classes for new operators are geared to visual learning. “We have see-through columns where we run distillation. We vary the heat and other things. Students see what happens when they maintain certain pressures and temperatures. They see that if they don’t keep the temperature or pressure right, the process goes off. The visual appeal of this fits this generation.”

At Lee and other schools students work with simulators that look just like real process units, which allows them to experience what work would be like in a real plant. “The instructor can sabotage a process in real time,” explains Dyer. “You can do all those things that happen in the real world. It’s just like a flight simulator.”

Process Operator as Top Gun

That analogy to training pilots popped up frequently in our interviews.

Venkatasubramanian also compares training new engineers with training jet pilots. “Look at the operator of an old steam-engine-driven train. He has to do lots of things. He and his cohorts are shoveling coal into the boiler. There’s lots of manual labor involved. The operator of today is still like that steam engineer. He’s trying to get information about what’s going on and is involved in a lot of low-level information-gathering and information-processing activities. The operator of 2025 is going to be more like a jet pilot. She will have access to all kinds of data, information and knowledge, and her job will be more about making higher-level decisions on the fly than about information gathering exercises. She’s will get a lot of assistance from the computer and communication systems. She will be a plant pilot. Now the problem is that the courses today are producing mostly engine drivers. How do we produce these pilots?”

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