Developing an engineering design simulator for risk-related decision making

April 29, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jeremy Gernand, Penn State assistant professor of environmental health and safety engineering in the John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering, recently received a Gladys Snyder Education Grant from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences to develop a computer-based simulator to give undergraduate engineering students experience with the risk-related implications of system design decisions.

In the National Society of Professional Engineer’s Code of Ethics, it says “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.” Consequences of failed engineered systems could be safety or health impacts on users or workers in addition to harm to the environment and the people who live in those areas.

“This proposal hypothesizes that engineers, like aircraft pilots or nuclear power plant operators, need the experience of a lifelike simulator to develop their intuition about risk and the efficacy of their decisions to mitigate risk. No such simulator currently exists to help train engineering students to calibrate their expectations and gain an intuitive grasp on the meaning of risk in engineered systems. In a professional setting, an engineer’s estimate of risk is believed to be based on experiential learning following the end of formal education. This is problematic as it requires harm or near misses to occur to provide this feedback,” said Gernand,

Gernand said that this research seeks to develop a simulator that will be used as an educational tool to both measure and reduce engineering students’ biases when estimating risk and help them to develop their decision-making skills to help mitigate risks. This virtual experience will help students experience the consequences of their own decision-making. These practice scenarios or games will also help students to enhance their empathic comprehension of the technological risks that may affect workers, users, the public and the environment.

Currently an undergraduate research assistant is working to develop code for the simulator and will be recruiting test subjects.

“My role is to collect data through a game that simulates a real-life, decision-making process and analyze this data based on my hypothesis about the factors that affect risk-related decision-making,” said Uzoezi Emmanuella Isaac-Onwah, who is majoring in petroleum and natural gas engineering concurrently with a master's degree in energy systems engineering.

The development and implementation of this simulator has the potential to transform the way the Engineering Risk Analysis course is taught. Not only will it cover the theory and application of risk analysis techniques, but also give students the experience with the practice of these techniques in actual engineering decision-making.

“I hope that by the end of this project, my research can hopefully be implemented and provide useful information for engineering students,” said Isaac-Onwah.

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Last Updated April 29, 2019