Ep 52 Cover

Podcast: Game-Based Learning Revolutionizes Process Safety Education in the Chemical Industry

Sept. 6, 2023
In our latest episode, we sit down with Dr. Cheryl Bodnar, one of the brilliant minds behind "Contents Under Pressure," an immersive game designed to teach process safety. Discover the story behind the game and its impact on education and industry.

Welcome to Process Safety with Trish and Traci, the podcast that aims to share insights from past incidents to help avoid future events. This podcast and its transcript can be found at chemicalprocessing.com. I'm Traci Purdum, editor-in-chief of Chemical Processing, and as always, I'm joined by Trish Kerin, the director of the IChemE Safety Centre. Also joining us today is Dr. Cheryl Bodnar, associate professor of Experiential Engineering Education at Rowan University. Cheryl is part of a team that recently won the 2023 David Himmelblau Award for Innovations in Computer-Based Chemical Engineering Education. 


Traci: Well, first off, I want to get into a little bit about how this award came about. You're part of a diverse team that won the 2023 award for your immersive game, Contents Under Pressure. Can you tell us when and how the team was assembled, and was the game its initial goal?

Cheryl: This actually started back in June of 2016. Our group was actually together at the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference at the Chemical Engineering Education Banquet. And the group of us knew each other from previous interactions through the American Society for Engineering Education. We'd also crossed paths as part of the American Institute of Chemical Engineering, and what we noticed was that we all had a passion for looking at new and innovative ways to teach.

We had a discussion as part of our awards dinner, sitting around the table talking about wouldn't it be interesting if we could use a game to teach something in the chemical engineering field. And we were thinking about what types of topics would resonate the most or have the most impact. We circled around to how important process safety is in our students' education and how it's one of those topics that you can't necessarily allow students to go and experience and make mistakes with while they're in the field because there's such serious implications associated with that from a community and environmental standpoint. Then, the idea sparked that, "Oh, this could be the perfect testing bed for using a game in order to teach that type of content."

Traci: So, you're sitting around. You figure out you want to have a game-based teaching tool. What happened then? How did it morph into the game, and how is the game played? You mentioned students can't be a part of the process safety in the field. It's too many things going on. But is this for students only, or can this be pushed into the workforce?

Cheryl: It started as the idea that we were going to develop this game just for student-based training. We were fortunate enough to be able to partner up with Filament Games, which is a game design company out of Madison, Wisconsin. So, in partnership with them, we met and we talked through how we would design the game in order to create an interactive environment that would help students understand the types of decisions that they're faced with when they're in a process safety chemical plant.

This led to a choice in terms of characters and interactivity that would allow us to put in place a main character where anyone could feel like they're serving in that role. So, the main character in Contents Under Pressure is an engineering manager, and basically, when you see the screen for the game, you come in and there's a desk in front of you. It's like you're sitting at that desk, and then a series of different characters will come into the room. And you have to report to your boss, which is the manager of the chemical plant.

There's a safety inspector that stops in on the plant to check how things are going. You have a team of three operators that you're responsible for, and then you also have a picture on your desk of your adopted daughter who will call at different times and ask you questions about things that are going on on the home front. So, it turned into this really beneficial environment where we could role model all different types of decisions.

What we like to showcase for the students is that it's not just about the really big decisions that they would see if they were to do a process safety case study, but there's a lot of different decisions that happen in that type of working environment, and depending on your lens and how you're looking at the situation, you might not actually realize that a decision you're making at that time has ethical consequences or has potential for harm because you could be caught up in different factors that are competing for your attention.

To answer your second part of your question about whether the game is for students only, originally, that was the way it was designed, but once we got the game actually working and prototyped, we realized that it could have a lot of benefit for the process safety industry field as a whole. And one of the new studies that we're doing, we're actually working with practitioners that are in chemical plants that serve in safety roles and looking at how they play the game. And they've given us very positive feedback on it so far.

Traci: It sounds like you've thought about every aspect of it, and it's brilliant. Trish, I wanted to go to you and ask you, what are the benefits of these types of games in training?

Trish: Well, firstly, congratulations, Cheryl, on winning the award. That's a fantastic achievement in itself. I love the sound of this game. I think it is incredibly powerful as a way for people to learn. I think the way that that will translate is you are giving people the experience, and, to a certain extent, as you said, the decisions we make, we don't necessarily realize what the ramifications are at the time because it might just seem like a little decision. So, we are putting people in a situation where they're going to go through these issues and make decisions that in hindsight may not have been the right decision to make.

But they'll learn that because there will be an emotional part of that when they realize they've made a mistake, but there's not the massive consequences of potentially people's lives as a result of that mistake. They do still get the learning there, which I think is really important and that psychological anchor in our minds when we have almost a visceral response to something and learn because we've had that feeling that we got something wrong. There is certainly emotion that goes with that.

The other part that I love about the idea of games is that they bring a little bit of lightheartedness into it. And whilst process safety is a very serious field, it doesn't mean we can't enjoy ourselves in the work we do and have fun. There've been a number of studies over many years that show that people learn better when they're not in a highly stressed environment. They learn better when they're actually having fun and enjoying themselves and building relationships with people and having interactions. So, I think these sorts of games are really important for that as well. They can help you build that joy in the workplace, which is incredibly important to help people remember the experiences, and reflect on them, and turn them into learning.

Traci: Now, Cheryl, there's a lot that goes into this, and as I was researching this ... and there's videos on it ... you and your team have really put a lot of thought into this in terms of playing with the time factors, financial costs, relationships, leadership, all of these factors. How did you decide on these for the aspects of the game?

Cheryl: What we wanted to do was we were reflecting on a lot of our own experiences in the classroom. Many of us had served in roles as educators where we were teaching senior design or a process safety course, and as part of the typical instruction in those types of classes, we do work on how to be safe by design. But then we also bring in the case study aspects. So, we'll look at the Chemical Safety Board, and we'll provide them with examples of what's happened in these different situations to help them reflect on what might you do differently if you were faced with these types of choices.

And what we saw again and again was that students were very good in the case study mentality to make choices that said, "Of course, I will take what is the most safe route, or I will definitely protect the environment." And I think it's because it's a hindsight perspective. Hindsight is always 20/20, as we like to say. So, when you're reflecting backward, it's much easier, to Trish's point, to be able to see where there could have been decisions that were made that shouldn't have been made versus when you're in the moment actually making those choices.

So, the particular parameters that we included in the game as metrics were pulled from different fields where we saw that they're considered to be competing criteria when you're making decisions. For instance, there's been a lot of studies that have been done in the medical field where it looks at the budgets that the hospital has and then the quality of care that you can get at those institutions so they've compared and contrasted financial costs with the health of the patients that comes out of those settings. There's also been studies done in the construction industry where they were looking at the time element of how you're delivering on different building construction and how that could be impacted associated with the level of production that you're capable of doing.

So, we looked across all these different fields, and we were pulling in these different aspects. Then, before we solidified them into the game, we went back and we looked at the Chemical Safety Board and the different reports that they've released on process safety incidents to see if those same competing criteria were showing up in that environment. We were fortunate to be able to find that our metrics were supported by that. Usually, and to Trish's point and what she shared, it's not usually a single judgment that leads to any of these process safety incidents. It's a series of minute and sometimes tiny judgments that pile up over time that then leads to a major incident that has that implication for the community and the environment. So, that's why we felt that these metrics were beneficial.

Traci: As you're playing the game ... You can play the game 17 times and come up with 17 different results. Is that true? Is it dynamic like that?

Cheryl: The game does have a single base narrative at this point. We are looking at getting some additional funding in order to expand upon the different branching pathways that exist within the game. But what we do feel is, and we've had students play it multiple times, no one has yet gone into that optimal outcome where they feel like they're actually succeeding in all the different metrics.

At each time point, you're trying to balance these different elements. So, at the top of your screen, you have an icon for time that's basically monitoring how much time you have left in your day. You have an icon that represents safety, one that represents your professional reputation, and one that represents production, and then if any of those metrics goes too low, you end up with a failure on that day of the gameplay. So, the students have told us that they might get through all of the game, but then they're like, "I got four failures in terms of production, so I wanted to go back and see what judgments or what choices I made that I might be able to change in order to make sure that I didn't have as many failures in that area." So, although the narrative is consistent at this point, there's still a lot of opportunity for replayability.

Traci: So, how do you win the game?

Cheryl: That is a good question. I think I got the best quote actually from my daughter who's a senior in high school this year, and she's played the game multiple times. And she said she doesn't think that there's a winning condition winning so much as the opportunity to be able to go back and reflect on the choices you made and the impacts that they had.

Trish: I love that, yeah.

Traci: Absolutely. And Trish, I wanted to tap your thoughts on is there a gap between belief and behavior when it comes to process safety?

Trish: Look, there absolutely is. And as Cheryl mentioned, it all comes down to hindsight bias. We believe that we are capable of our roles on most days, and we will make decisions and we will do all these things. We think we're in control, and we think we know what's going on. One of the cognitive biases that impacts us is the illusion of control, where we think we're in control, but we're actually not. There's a whole lot of factors that lead us to make a range of decisions in everything we do every day, and these are the factors that have been included in the game, the time pressure, the finance, the production, the interpersonal relationships, the leadership, the external impacts.

I love the fact that your adopted daughter phones you multiple times a day as well because that's real life. Things happen outside of life that distract us from thinking about our tasks at work as well. And vice versa, work can distract from home life too. So, having all of these things happen means that the decisions we make are not necessarily the best decisions if we had the moment to completely focus solely on that one factor only to the exclusion of everything else and take the time to make a logical and rational decision. Because in real-life activities, we often don't make logical and rational decisions. We make gut decisions that are based on our experience.

So, this certainly is this gap between what we believe we would do when we read an incident report and think, "Well, I would never have made that mistake because that was just obvious that that was going to cause the incident. How could they be so stupid to make that mistake?" But the fact is that if we took you and put you in an identical context and situation, chances are you'd probably make the same mistake because it's all about the context that you put in and what's going on around you at the time. So, we can all believe that we would never do certain things that have caused incidents in the past, but the fact is we'd probably all do them if we were put in exactly the same context at the time. We are no better or worse than anybody else in this field. We are humans. We are fallible.

Cheryl: I think, Trish, that is such a great point. It actually led to ... We had an initial National Science Foundation grant that allowed us to develop the Contents Under Pressure game, and subsequently, now, we have research in the Formation of Engineers National Science Foundation grant that's allowing us to test that component explicitly, the gap between beliefs and behaviors. What we have been doing is we've done it with students so far, and we've done a pilot study with practitioners now. So, we go through what's called a beliefs interview, and we sit down with the individuals. And we're asking them to rank those different competing criteria that we were talking about, so the time, the spending that you're doing, your relationships, leadership, safety, production, and then we go through five different scenarios that are present within the Contents Under Pressure game.

So, we're pulling out from that particular beliefs interview what their established beliefs are because sometimes beliefs are very deeply held, so it can be difficult for someone to articulate their innately held beliefs. But we call them espoused beliefs because they're the beliefs that the individuals can share with us. Then we have them go and play Contents Under Pressure, and with the way the game is designed, we can actually pull from the game the choices that they made, the explicit choices, and which criteria they were prioritizing when they were making those decisions. Then we present what's called a gap profile to them where we say, "Here's what you said you were going to prioritize when you were making your decisions. Here's what you did in the game." Now, we go back and we talk to them afterward in a reconciliation interview, and we ask them, "What are your thoughts based on this?" So, we've definitely seen that there's a gap

Trish: That is really powerful. It's a powerful reflection for them to have afterward.

Cheryl: Yes. Yeah, I feel like it's a great opportunity. What we try to tell everyone as we're doing this particular line of research is our goal is not to tell anyone that what they're doing is right or wrong. Our goal is to provide that, basically raising it from the unconscious level to the conscious level of here's the difference between what you thought you were going to do and what you did, and now you can reflect on maybe you'll approach a decision differently because of it.

Trish: Yeah, that is just an incredibly powerful way to learn because they come to their own realization. You're right. You're not correcting them and saying they were wrong. You're just actually allowing them to experience, which is so, so valuable. And I can see applications for this in industry widely.

Cheryl: That is actually really good news because that's where we're hoping to go next.

Traci: One of my questions to you was, are you going to customize this for specific facilities? And you mentioned that you use case studies from the CSB, but going into different facilities and being able to put in scenarios that matter in that facility, I think that is just something that you can probably run with. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Cheryl: I think it's definitely something that we would be open to exploring. I did not realize when I got into the field of game design of how expensive it can be to derive really strong games. And I think this shows the value of game designers. They're very specialized in what they do. If I were to create a game and I were to overlay it, it would probably come across more like multiple choice on a computer screen because my understanding of how to present things is very different.

But Filament Games, when they worked with us on it, they had a team of artists. They had sound engineers who were designing all of the interactive immersive sound components that went into the game. And then they also had all, of course, the coding individuals that were designing the computer graphics that went along with it. So, it took quite a bit of budget to get Contents Under Pressure to where it is now, but I think in working with industry, now that we have the baseline game, it would be possible to go back in and change certain decisions and choices given the right financial supports to be able to make those choices on the back end.

But we would definitely be open to it, and I think I agree, to your point, Traci, it could provide a lot of opportunity if it's reflective of the context where you're trying to do the training.

Traci: And always that financial aspect of things, right?

Cheryl: Yes. Can't get away from that.

Traci: Trish, have you seen game-based learning elsewhere?

Trish: Yeah, I have, actually. But quite different formats of game-based learning. Way back in the last century in the 1990s, there was a company that developed a game called the Manufacturing Game, and I remember playing that at a refinery I was working at. The key for this one was actually to take your frontline staff and teach them about how the business runs so that they can make good decisions in the field, understanding a range of different impacts on them from that, the safety, the financial, the production, et cetera. It's a board-based game activity where you play in teams, and you are assigned roles, and you play that role.

That's really interesting because it allows you to experience thinking about something from a different perspective. Because when we're often caught up in the work we do, we don't realize what someone else's job actually is. How many times have you sat there at some point in time in the past and gone, "I really don't know what my manager does. They don't seem to do anything because I do all the work"? We often don't recognize what other people actually do, and so the games where you get people to play a different role have a lot of power. And I've seen that used.

From the perspective of our own case studies in the ISC, they're definitely not as sophisticated as this game, and I am a little bit jealous, but they do go through a similar thing. They go through a scenario, and they build up the context and the environment that's going on around you and then ask you to make a decision. What do you think the people in this story are going to do now? Because we base them on specific incidents, by the time we get to the end, people have made three decisions along the way. Those three decisions lead to the eventual incident in some way. As we go through that, often we find that people make the same decisions or can at least clearly see why the decision was made by the people at the time that resulted in that incident, so they do get that experience.

There's another couple of areas I've seen as well. I'm aware of a guy who's got a game on decision-making. And again, it's a board-based game where you actually play it in four teams of four. You work through, you land on a square, and you have to do an activity on that square. So, as your team, you do that activity, but then you actually have to teach the rest of the group how you did the activity. So, it uses learning through doing and learning through teaching. And at the end of the game, every square has been landed on by a team, and so every activity has been completed.

In fact, I'm working with him on a [inaudible] version to look at how we can see those weak signals as well. So, I'm a big fan of gamification. I think it is critically important. Whether it is high sophistication, virtual reality, whether it is computer-based simulation, or whether it's even board games, they all have enormous value because, as I said, they bring in this fun aspect as well as you've got the ability to put certain scenarios in front of people and put them in a position and have them make a decision.

Traci: It gives them the chance to have that aha moment in a safe space rather than having the why didn't I after a catastrophic event. And I think that by exercising that part of your psyche, I think it's truly beneficial. Trish, are there any downsides to this approach of learning?

Trish: Look, there's probably only one that I can think of really, and it is that there are some people that just won't play the game. You will always find some people in an organization that, "Games are for children. I'm not a child, so I'm not going to play that game." These people exist. I'm sure all of us have met them at some point in time. I'm not really sure how to challenge to get around that other than just leave them on the sidelines and let them watch everybody else have fun, and then eventually, they'll come around, hopefully. Or if not, maybe they shouldn't be part of it because maybe they're not contributing positively to the culture of the organization.

So, I think there is that challenge that there will be some people that don't like playing games. There'll be some people that overly like playing games and get ridiculously competitive with each other, and so that needs to be managed in a facilitated way, I think, because you do need to at times, perhaps, constrain some people that are getting ridiculously competitive with the rest of the group. Because while playing games is a great way to learn, and it can be a great fun thing, it can actually become quite toxic if all of a sudden you've created competition where you potentially then start to see sabotage occur between players who are striving to win. Who at some point hasn't been in one of those Monopoly games at some point in our lives that ...

So, some people have this really natural competitive streak that once you flick that switch, they're a monster. We need to manage that too. It needs to be facilitated. I think they're the key. It's about the personalities going into the game or not. Cheryl mentioned the financial implications of creating games. Yes, they're not cheap to create. They do require a specific sort of thinking, but I don't think there's many other downsides to them, to be honest.

Cheryl: To build on what you were saying, Trish, when we use games actually in the higher ed context, a lot of individuals do have pushback initially because they're like, "I'm not in high school anymore. I shouldn't be playing games. This is serious education." So, oftentimes, we don't introduce the activity as a game. We introduce it as, "We're going to do some experiential learning here, and you're going to have the opportunity to get your hands on and invested in this particular exercise." Then we'll debrief afterwards and make the connection between that activity and what they're learning in the classroom.

But the power of observation is definitely real as well. For those individuals who don't want to engage right away, just having them watch and observe and share their perspective on what they saw that was different from those who were engaging in the game is just as valuable.

Trish: Absolutely, yeah.

Traci: One final question I want to pose to both of you. How does teaching ethical reasoning benefit process safety? Cheryl, you want to go first on that one?

Cheryl: Sure. I think it's really about broadening the awareness of these situations that occur routinely within professional practice. We talk to the students now a lot about what's called ethical fading, which is the idea that when you're in an educational environment and you see these case studies that are presented to you, you know that you are dealing with an ethical case study, so automatically you put on your ethics hat. So, you go into it, and your decisions are very different because you're focused on the ethics piece.

But as we've talked about throughout this entire podcast, when you're in a practice environment, oftentimes, there's no warning light, there's no sign that goes on, there's no special sound effect that alerts you that the choice that you're about to make has ethical ramifications. So, by getting students familiar with the idea that when you're in an environment, you're going to be faced with many different decisions that are going to challenge you, and you won't always know that there's ethical implications associated with it, but it's about taking that step back and going, "Okay, what are the factors that are influencing this decision that I'm about to face? Are there any things that I know could be potential limitations based on my experiences that I've had so far, and how do I take those into account or mitigate for them so that I don't let them influence my decision unnecessarily?"

Traci: Trish, your thoughts?

Trish: I think, for me, ethical decision-making is about good decision-making, and that certainly benefits process safety when we're able to make good decisions about the next path forward. Reflecting back on the last ethical decision podcast that we did, Traci, we certainly talked a lot about ethics in that one, but for me, the thing that sort of sticks in the back of my mind when I'm about to make a decision is a phrase that I learned a few years ago through a substantial investigation into some financial misconduct, and it's to ask yourself the question. It's not, can we do it, i.e. is it legal? It's, should we do it? Is it ethical and moral?

Instead of thinking, "Well, can we do this?" The question should be, should we do it? And changing that frame of thought to should we do it, or what are some of the ramifications that may not be legal issues, but they could well be ethical dilemmas that we face. So, just changing that frame of mind to thinking well, should we, rather than can we, and going into decisions where we can with the right amount of information so that we can make a good decision, I think is incredibly important in not only ensuring that we continue to practice our professional lives with ethics, but that we also make good decisions for process safety because good decisions in process safety save people's lives.

Traci: Do either of you have anything you'd like to add that we didn't touch on?

Cheryl: I think that I just want to say a broad thank you to the entire team that I work with. None of the work that I'm presenting as part of this podcast would've been possible without my collaborators Dan Burkey at University of Connecticut, Matthew Cooper at North Carolina State University, and Dan Anastasio at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, as well as Filament Games. It was a collaborative effort amongst all of us that has led to Contents Under Pressure, and we just very grateful about how well it has been accepted by the community and looking forward to seeing it more in practice, both in higher education classrooms, but also in the chemical process safety industry.

Traci: I'm looking forward to that as well. Trish, do you have any last thoughts for us?

Trish: One last reflection from me is I think that this project and this activity also demonstrates the value of building professional relationships because, as Cheryl mentioned at the start, this whole idea started at an awards dinner at a conference where a couple of people that had previously known each other sat round and thought, "Hm, maybe we could do something different." And because they had a relationship established and they knew each other and they were able to bounce ideas off each other in a safe way, we ended up with this fantastic resource for teaching, not only at university, but potentially into industry as well. So, those conversations that we have at dinner at a conference can be really powerful.

Traci: Absolutely. Be careful what you talk about, right?

About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.