Friday, 15 May 2015

"Getting" Process Engineering

I have just marked the final courseworks in a two-year programme of learning process design. It is the sixth or seventh complete process design I have students do, depending on whether they are doing the two-year undergraduate or one year crash MSc versions of the course.

As far as I know, these are the best process plant designers anyone is producing in HE, and this is the most intensive, most realistic course in plant design anywhere, but even after all of the teaching and all of the practice, a significant minority of them don't really "get it".

Some of this work reminds me of when I attended music classes at school. I attended all of the classes, did all of the homework, and then at the end of the course, the teacher asked us to compose a piece of music.

There hadn't been any lessons on composing music. I had no idea where to start. I ended up stringing almost random bits of the bits of music he had given us to look at together. It had the right kinds of clefs, and so on, but it wasn't music. I didn't know what music was. Still don't, which I why I used to play the drums when I knocked about with musicians, just like the old joke.

The work in question has evidence of hard work, and often all of the elements I have showed students, including things from the work of the best students I have used as exemplars. The hard work and large size of the submissions just makes clear that they don't understand what they have been shown.

I am always on the lookout for what we educators call threshold concepts, and when I spot one, I make sure to find ways to get the majority of students over the hurdle, but some of these submissions seem to show a more radical inability.The threshold concept in some cases seems to be "Engineering" - they just don't get engineering.

Of course, modern chemical engineering courses often fail to get students to understand anything other than how to pass the exam. Exams in fluid mechanics often set questions requiring you to derive Bernoulli's equation from first principles, but do not require you to really get what pressure is.

When I ask students to design something in which initial system pressure is provided by a head of fluid under gravity, and a variable flow of water passes downhill through various sizes of pipes and fittings to sand filters whose head increases over time and proportional to flowrate, then discharges to a closed vessel under pressure, they are lost. They don't know that water flows downhill, or why.

When you multiply this effect by all of the strands which go into process design, it is a miracle that any of them get it at all. But mostly they do, though it is very hard indeed for all but the 5% of natural engineers.

This is why we chemical engineers get the big bucks. All of my students have three As at A-level, and they work very hard, but not everyone can get it. Guess they'll have to be managers:

A man in a hot air balloon realised he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a man below. He descended a bit more and shouted, "Excuse me can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him half an hour ago, but I don't know where I am."

The man below replied, "you are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet about the ground. You are at approximately 53° north latitude, and at 1° in 13 minutes west longitude from the Greenwich meridian."

"You must be an engineer," said the balloonist." I am," replied the man "but how did you know?"

"Well," answered the balloonist, "everything you tell me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost."

The man below responded, "you must be a manager." "I am," replied the balloonist, "how did you know?"

" Well," said the man, "you don't know where you are or where you are going. you made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. The fact is you are exactly in the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it's my fault."

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