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Exploring Engineering Students’ Decision Making Priorities in a Digital Plant Environment

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

Utilizing Technology to Train Chemical Engineering Students

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Paper Authors


Jeffrey Stransky Rowan University

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Jeffrey Stransky is a PhD candidate in the Experiential Engineering Education (ExEEd) Department at Rowan University. His research interests involve studying engineering ethics and decision making and using digital games as safe teaching environments. He has published in the overlap of these topics by integrating digital games into chemical engineering curriculum to help students build an awareness of the ethical and practical implications of their decisions. Jeffrey obtained his BS and MSc in Mechanical Engineering from Rowan University (Glassboro, NJ).

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Cheryl Bodnar Rowan University

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Dr. Cheryl Bodnar is an Associate Professor in the Experiential Engineering Education Department at Rowan University and is currently serving as the Provost’s Fellow for Student Success. Recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Kern Family Foundation have funded her research. Her research interests relate to the incorporation of active learning techniques such as game-based learning in undergraduate classes as well as integration of innovation and entrepreneurship into the engineering curriculum. In particular, she is interested in the impact that these tools can have on student perception of the classroom environment, motivation, and learning outcomes.

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Daniel Burkey University of Connecticut

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Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Diversity

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Daniel Anastasio Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology


Matthew Cooper North Carolina State University at Raleigh

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Matthew Cooper is a Teaching Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NC State. After receiving a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Ohio University, he served as a researcher at RTI International before joining the NC State faculty in 2011. Dr. Cooper’s research interests include effective teaching, process safety decision-making skills, and best practices for online education. He also hosts the In The (Fume) Hood chemical engineering education podcast.

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Chemical process incidents often have devastating effects on the environment, the economy, and human well-being. While the chemical process industry acknowledges the importance of safety through the production of inherently safer designs, much work is still needed to mitigate incidents caused by shortcomings in human decision making. Recently, education on human factors and on ethical decision making have gained some attention among process safety researchers, but these efforts often overlook how competing criteria may influence engineers’ decision making. We see evidence of this in some US Chemical Safety Board case studies where fatal incidents occurred possibly because engineers failed to balance competing criteria such as safety, productivity, and budget. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to investigate how senior chemical engineering students balance competing criteria in a process safety context. Specifically, this work answers the research question: how do senior chemical engineering students prioritize process safety criteria as they make decisions in a digital process safety game? Students’ behavior in balancing or prioritizing criteria is observable through their serial decisions in a digital process safety game, Contents Under Pressure. Contents Under Pressure engages players in a role-playing narrative as a senior plant manager where they must make binary decisions to maintain key metrics (time, reputation, safety, and productivity) while working with subordinate employees and managers. The game objective is to balance these metrics through almost 300 decisions, where too low of a metric score will result in an incident and contribute towards a game failure. Every decision can increase or decrease any of these metrics over the course of the game narrative. Compiling the metric scores over the narrative creates a timeline that can reveal a player’s metric priorities. Generating timelines from 82 senior chemical engineering students, we found that safety was prioritized over reputation and productivity. For 65 of the students (79%), this led to a game failure occurring at least once for the productivity metric. Reputation was the second most prioritized in these timelines, yet how closely reputation came behind safety deviated much across students. These results indicate that senior chemical engineering students primarily make decisions to prioritize safety by trading off with other key metrics, such as productivity, with the acceptance that this could lead to failure in other responsibilities. Beyond this study, the results may provide evidence as to why chemical engineering students should receive training on decision making in situations with competing criteria prior to entering industry.

Stransky, J., & Bodnar, C., & Burkey, D., & Anastasio, D., & Cooper, M. (2022, August), Exploring Engineering Students’ Decision Making Priorities in a Digital Plant Environment Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN.

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