Head to Head: Simulations Versus Real-World Experience
Experience is undoubtedly the best teacher – but what is the best way to get experience? In our industry, on-the-job “experience” is delivered via a simulator or on-demand tutorials like EnVision. From a practical standpoint, energy plants cannot be taken offline for training. How do we know then that the experience gained is teaching the valuable lessons necessary for safe, efficient operations? A close examination reveals the answer.
Simulations: Bridging theory and practice for nearly a century
Modern simulations for learning were introduced in 1929. Edward Link built the first flight simulator from scrap parts, just twenty-six years after the invention of the airplane. Realistic mock-ups gained popularity over the next fifty years across many applications where a hands-on experience was deemed impractical or dangerous. It wasn’t until World War II that computer-based simulators were introduced. Mathematicians used them to study the behavior of neutrons since trial experiments were too costly and analysis too complex. Computer technology continued to evolve, and in 1971, GSE Systems built the first high-fidelity refinery and fossil power plant simulator.
Simulations go hand-in-hand with the growth of our industry, so many can appreciate the benefits. Hands-on experience would be unpredictable, expensive, time-consuming, and high risk for nuclear, oil & gas, and other power generation systems. For learning, simulations provide:
- Safety: Being able to run and rerun ordinary, as well as catastrophic events, allows operators to think through their actions, gain insight into related systems, and develop situational awareness without risk. It’s just not possible for employees to safely learn from their mistakes on the job.
- Cost: A simulator can be used to train thousands of employees over its lifespan. Many can be used for decades with proper maintenance and technology updates.
- Quality: Plant simulation teaches employees to operate with confidence and skill with training scenarios built around real events and operating conditions.
- Efficiency: Simulators can be used to quickly teach new processes that would play out over hours, days, or months, and assess skills needed to make snap decisions.
- Perceived Relevance: Perhaps most significantly, simulators are the bridge between classroom theory and real-world skills. Let’s take a closer look at this benefit.
Motivation to Learn
Instructors often struggle to motivate students who don’t understand the practical application of the material they are learning. Geometry students everywhere can relate. If employees don’t see how new the materials can be applied to their career, it may affect their enthusiasm to learn and their attentiveness – with disastrous implications.
A recent study found that 82 percent of students found their learning topic more interesting when they were given time to play with a related online lab program. These results indicate that simulation-based learning can enable students to understand how classroom learning can be applied in a real-world setting, which increases the student’s interest and motivation to learn the material in the first place.
Practical Skill Building
Simulations can lessen the gap between developing skills and proficiency. Research has found that even working on a written case-study simulation of realistic activities increased students’ confidence in their real-world ability. Additionally, simulations that introduce students to techniques and equipment allowed them to learn necessary skills in a fraction of the time it would take in real life. We can conclude that simulations positively impact careers, practical skills, foundational knowledge, and confidence by allowing learners to have practical exposure to the field while in a classroom setting.
It also stands to reason that if rudimentary simulations are effective in teaching, then more realistic models increase the impact. That’s the thinking behind a “digital twin.” A plant’s digital twin – a computational simulator – can be utilized beyond traditional training as a virtualization of physical assets. Because the simulator dynamically models in real-time a whole plant and each individual system, it can be used for team training, engineering studies, and virtual commissioning of plant changes.
The Future of Simulations
Nuclear plant reference simulators have been mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission since the 1980s for plant operator training. So, what is driving new and innovative simulation uses? In a word, technology. The advent of cost-effective computing power has been a motivating factor for plants utilizing copies of their simulator load to provide deeper insights and early validation of design for upgrades and design modification projects.
Faster computers and higher fidelity models provide a powerful learning environment. When used in conjunction with content-rich, self-paced tutorials to teach the fundamentals of various unit operations jobs and process controls, students can quickly gain knowledge, confidence, real-world skills. By contrast, other types of experience simply can’t compare.
Learn more about EnVision On-Demand and learning portals.