One of the most difficult aspects of chemical engineering teaching is the introduction of students to the reality of process plant. Students often lack an appreciation of how process units link and interact with each other and of their size and appearance, Visits to real process plants are helpful, but can be problematic and suffer from safety restrictions. This paper details the development of a PC computer based Virtual Chemical Plant (VCP) aimed at first year undergraduate chemical engineering students. The plant has been developed from Internet technology using the HTML and VRML programming languages and can be accessed from any internet browser with the appropriate ‘plug in’ installed.

Development of a Virtual Chemical Plant as a Teaching Tool
Adapted from M.J.H Simmons, P. Griffiths & J.P.K Seville
School of Chemical Engineering,
University of Birmingham, UK

One of the most difficult aspects of chemical engineering teaching is the introduction of students to the reality of process plant. Students often lack an appreciation of how process units link and interact with each other and of their size and appearance, Visits to real process plants are helpful, but can be problematic and suffer from safety restrictions. This paper details the development of a PC computer based Virtual Chemical Plant (VCP) aimed at first year undergraduate chemical engineering students. The plant has been developed from Internet technology using the HTML and VRML programming languages and can be accessed from any internet browser with the appropriate ‘plug in’ installed.

INTRODUCTION

In an environment where students place a great value upon their time, they tend to work to maximize their possible grades, often to the detriment of their understanding of a subject. These problems are often exacerbated by the students’ approach to learning. Traditional methods of assessment have caused students to take a ‘surface approach’ to learning (Gibbs, 1981; Marton et at, 1984), where they are more concerned with memorizing materials to pass examinations than in obtaining a deep understanding of a particular subject area. Since the students may never develop a solid theoretical understanding, they often fail to relate material between different courses and have difficulty in making sense of new ideas that are presented to them. Students ask the question ‘What do I need to learn to pass the exam?’ during tutorials with a depressing frequency. It is therefore extremely important that courses are presented in an interesting, exciting and relevant way to the students so that they see the value of the experience and are motivated to learn.

To overcome these limitations requires use of different teaching and assessment methods. Successfully motivating the students so that they enjoy the experience of being taught the subject material and take a holistic approach to develop deep learning skills is essential in the development of proactive and enthusiastic individuals. This requires a move away from didactic courses and the use of different strategies to encourage a deep learning approach. Such strategies which can be used are problem based learning where the students team from tackling relevant problems, and independent learning, where students work on subject material at their own pace in their own time. A tool which can be used to employ both this strategies is Computer Based Learning (CBL). CBL is extremely powerful in an environment such as a University where human resources are limited. If used correctly, CBL can enrich the learning experience while at the same time reducing the number of contact hours required between the students and the lecturer.

Specific weaknesses have been identified in students taking courses in chemical engineering at the University of Birmingham. They have particular difficulties in obtaining a feel for the scale of items of process equipment and do not comprehend how different items of process plant interact; a problem analogous to their difficulty in generating links between courses. These problems often surface when they come to attempt their final year design project, which involves designing apiece of process plant and are exacerbated by the fact that very few students have had any previous industrial experience.

A commonly used remedy is to ensure all students attend a site visit early in their studies. However, this approach, although valuable, has some significant drawbacks. Process equipment tends to be cluttered up by pipe racks and buildings and it can take several years for a skilled process operator to grasp the complexity of the system let alone a group of inexperienced students. Any pedagogical approach employed to help the students understand the system can easily be lost. In addition to this, there are considerable logistical difficulties due to safety implications and operating companies are often reluctant to accept large groups of students onto their sites.

This paper describes the creation of a ‘Virtual Chemical Plant’ (VCP), developed as a CBL package at the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University in Indonesia. The package was developed to provide students with an exciting interactive learning environment in order to foster deep learning and develop an appreciation of the scale and complexity of process plant, but in simple enough terms to give the students a clear understanding of the process described.

The heart of the VCP package is, as the title suggests, a 3 D ‘virtual world’ walkthrough of a chemical plant. Students have the ability to walk around the unit on the computer screen and interact with individual items of process equipment. In light of the problems identified with the majority of the chemical engineering students, the package was designed to satisfy the following learning outcomes:

  • The students should have an understanding of the relative scale and complexity of equipment used in process plant.
  • The students should be able to visually identify major process units, e.g. pumps, valves, heat exchanger, distillation columns, separators, vessels, reactors etc.
  • The students should be able to follow the progress of the main process streams through the unit.
  • The students should be able to comprehend the function of each piece of equipment within the plant and describe qualitatively the chemical and physical processes occurring within each individual unit.
  • The students should be able to apply knowledge gained from their other courses to perform simple calculations on each unit to perform a mass and energy balance over the plant.
  • The students should comprehend that all the units in the plant are interdependent and be aware that any variations in performance can have knock on effects.