Chemical engineering celebrates 10 years of safety education at Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “It was a day that changed everything in the chemical industry,” Robert Nedwick used to say when he referred to the Bhopal disaster of December 1984. The tragedy was one of the influences that inspired the late assistant professor of chemical engineering at Penn State to develop the course Chemical Process Safety more than a decade ago.

With many universities offering little to no formal safety education for chemical engineering students and new graduates continually challenged to enter the workforce underprepared to recognize and respond to potential dangers, a need for the course was strikingly apparent.

In the past 10 years, the department has witnessed the launch and subsequent success of the course as it has changed the landscape of safety education at Penn State. Chemical Process Safety has produced hundreds of graduates who are well versed in chemical safety practices and ready to succeed in industry.

Chemical Process Safety — The early years

Chemical Process Safety was first offered as an elective course in fall 2005. The course was developed by the late Robert Nedwick, assistant professor of chemical engineering, with the encouragement of Andrew Zydney, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and former department head.

Nedwick, who had come to Penn State with more than 32 years of industry experience, noticed a gap in the program’s curriculum and was inspired to develop a comprehensive safety course geared toward students who planned to enter the industrial workforce.

“Bob was passionate about creating the process safety course, and I thought it was a fantastic idea,” said Zydney. “Most departments covered a week or two of safety in their senior design course, but Bob’s proposal to offer a full semester was really on the leading edge — and the student response we saw was overwhelming.”

The course reached full enrollment during the first semester it was offered and quickly became the most popular elective course in the department. By 2008, Nedwick and Zydney agreed that adding another faculty member to co-teach the course would be beneficial.

Darrell Velegol, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, was added to the course’s teaching roster that year with a mission to infuse the course with concepts in process control.

“I had sat in on the course the year before and was astounded at the depth and importance of the material that Bob was teaching,” Velegol recalled.  “I learned a lot of new information that led to changes in my own safety protocols in the lab. I was very eager to assist with the course.”

The lessons Velegol introduced to the Chemical Process Safety course utilized algorithms and mechanisms to calculate and maintain desired process conditions — knowledge that is crucial in maintaining controlled and safe chemical environments.

The same year, the course was awarded a grant from the Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education, which enabled a portion of the course to expand online with new Web-based instruction and self-assessment questions. The enhanced format allowed students to perform conventional detailed work outside of the classroom and opened more class time for higher-level activities.

Learning from the past, planning for the future

The format of the Chemical Process Safety course is based on a combination of guest speaker presentations, academic study, and engaged group learning.

Dow Chemical Company, Phillips 66, ExxonMobil, The Chemours Company, and a number of others are strong supporters of the course and continually send representatives to talk about their experiences in chemical facilities. The course also includes in-depth discussions on a number of historical disasters that may have been prevented had circumstances been altered. The guest speakers focus on topics such as: ethics and economics, identifying hazards systematically, safety calculations, crisis prevention, and disaster coverage in the media.

A fairly recent addition to the course involves a student-designed safety audit in department research labs. Students develop their own safety checklists with knowledge of existing protocols and conduct laboratory safety reviews. Results are then shared with faculty members and researchers to promote safer working environments throughout the department.

All exercises are designed to carry over into future career practices and help students develop their own set of strong and actionable safety habits.

Process safety — today and into the future

In 2014, Nedwick retired from the department and leadership of the course was passed on to Dawn McFadden, assistant professor of chemical engineering.

McFadden, who also began her career in industry, carries an extensive amount of safety knowledge and expertise. In the past year she has been able to successfully maintain Nedwick’s vision of the course while incorporating some of her own unique developments.

This year, she added an off-campus facility tour to the course syllabus.

Current students of the course had the opportunity to visit Croda Inc., a chemical pharmaceutical company located in Mill Hall, to gain a behind-the-scenes perspective into what goes on in day-to-day chemical operations.

“This was the first time I had ever visited a chemical plant,” said Ahmed Alqudaihy, a senior chemical engineering student who participated in the experience. “The tour helped me see a lot of things in-person that I have learned about in my academic career.”

It is important for McFadden that students see the significance of safety being carried out in an industrial setting.

“With so many safety factors to take into consideration, students often ask how much they will be responsible for throughout their careers,“ McFadden said. “I respond by telling them all of it — every single piece of the equation must be considered to successfully avoid an incident.”

The Chemical Process Safety course has been recognized by students, faculty and alumni for its tremendous importance, and this year it was announced that it had also become part of the required core curriculum for all chemical engineering undergraduates starting with this year’s freshman cohort.

“I’m fully convinced that this is a huge step forward for the department,” said Phillip Savage, chemical engineering department head. “Not only are we promoting safety among our students, but the course has gained a lot of external interest as well. Companies are becoming increasingly excited about hiring our undergraduates because they emerge from the program with such confidence and are ready to take on leadership roles.”

While it is clear that a number of work hours and contributions went into building the course, the many efforts have paid off over the years. After a decade in development the course continues to be well respected among industry partners and popular among students. The department has even witnessed the first round of former students, now alumni working in industry, returning to Penn State to address the class as new guest speakers.

“When Bob and I co-taught Chemical Process Safety during the fall semester he would end every week with an enthusiastic ‘WE ARE!’” Velegol reflected. “It was important to him that the students were always engaged, and more importantly, that they learned to be outstanding engineers during their time at Penn State.”

Last Updated December 09, 2015