It is that time of year when the graduation caps fly and parents sit in crowded auditoriums waiting to hear their graduate’s name called. The cliché phrase often uttered by students and graduates is, “I will never use that in the real world!” It is true that most vocations will never require anyone to “complete the square” or use geometrical proofs from high school. Even as an engineer, I may never have to compute a triple integral by hand again. This does not mean that learning those things was unnecessary, because it led to the development of more important skills. The critical thinking and complex reasoning skills that I developed because of those proofs and integrals are tools that I use every day.
Ask any engineer and I am sure they will tell you horror stories about staying up late studying for their Thermodynamics or Heat and Mass Transfer courses. One area of process safety and process engineering that relies heavily on the principles of thermodynamics and mass transfer is pressure relief analysis. Calculating the maximum possible flow through a control valve requires knowledge of flow equations. Similarly, calculating the increase in relief temperature that accompanies a blocked compressor outlet requires knowledge of the equations for adiabatic compression of gases. These are just two aspects of relief system design that require complex calculation.
While I may not always be able to recall the exact relief valve sizing equation from API 521 that I need or the specific equation to calculate the required relief rate for a given scenario, what my engineering education has taught me are the principles behind the equations. These principles serve as a guide for how to use the equations after they are referenced. For instance, if my calculations show that for a blocked compressor outlet, adiabatic compression of a gas yields a decrease in relief temperature, then know that I have messed up somewhere. A common adage when it comes to complex calculations is, “Garbage in, garbage out.” An engineer has to know when the inputs and results of a calculation are reasonable. This is why the conceptual background is crucial to performing engineering calculations and analyses. A computer can only crunch the numbers it is given. It is the engineer’s job to make sure that the numbers make sense.
Perhaps the most important part of my engineering curriculum, however, was learning how to visualize and solve problems. This skill is particularly useful in PHA’s. When Cognascents gets contracted by a company to conduct a PHA, we look at the process with cold eyes. We may have come across a similar process unit in the past, but all units, even similar units within the same facility, have their own nuances. When we fail individual elements during a Hazard and Operability Study, HAZOP methodology requires that the team play out what happens next and the potential consequences. Liquid level in this vessel goes low, resulting in gas blowby to the next vessel, and so on. Thus, being able to visualize the process and mentally step through the sequence of events is crucial to an effective PHA.
The ability to visualize and solve problems is a skill that has proved helpful, not just in a process engineering role, but in my everyday life as well. Recently, the air conditioner in my house has been having trouble keeping up during the afternoon hours, when it is warmest outside. Having learned about refrigeration cycles in my college thermodynamics courses, I attempted to diagnose the problem. Checking the airflow coming from all the vents in the house ruled out a ducting or blower issue. Checking the outdoor unit ruled out a compressor or condenser fan issue. Cleaning both the outdoor and indoor coils ruled out a heat transfer issue. Eventually, after several hours of troubleshooting, I concluded that that the system must be low on Freon. Since the refrigerant is in a closed loop system, this meant there had to be a leak somewhere. This conclusion was eventually confirmed by the technician that came out to check the system. This may seem like a simple problem with a straightforward solution that anyone could have arrived at, especially when compared to complex process units in refineries or chemical plants, but the point remains the same. The ability to visualize and solve problems is an important skill, both in engineering and in life.
The point of education is not just to learn facts or solve math problems, but to develop skills that make us better, more well-rounded individuals. So, with that said, the next time that a recent college or high school graduate complains about having had to learn, “things they will never use again,” remind them that the critical thinking and reasoning skills that they developed are more important than the actual information they had to study.