Rigged up like a Christmas tree
Jennifer Henderson, head of applied science and computing at Forth Valley College, is looking forward to taking delivery of a new Christmas tree for her department by Easter next year.
Once installed, the tree may be made to malfunction and students will have to learn, among other things, how to close it down quickly and safely. They will be learning skills which, in the future, may save their lives.
This Christmas tree, though, is not one with glitzy baubles and flashing lights. Rather, it's the name given to the kind of valve assembly which you would find at the top of a well-head on an oil rig. "It will enable us to train students in off-shore well-head operations and will be a significant addition to our training resources," says Ms Henderson.
A recent HMIE report on Forth Valley College drew attention to these resources, in particular the college's chemical training plant (or rig) at its Falkirk campus, near the Grangemouth refinery and petro-chemical plant.
A unique training facility in central Scotland, it was singled out as an example of sector-leading and innovative practice which enables students to learn how to operate, run and maintain a process plant in a controlled, safe environment.
"To the outsider it might look like a giant Meccano set, but it's actually a generic plant, which means it is of training use for operating any chemical process, not just on-shore or off-shore oil installations," says Ms Henderson.
HMIE said of the plant: "Through live complex problem-solving scenarios, learners developed not only discipline-specific skills and knowledge, but also the specialised communication, problem-solving, team working and leadership skills that they require to survive and succeed in their chosen industry."
INEOS Manufacturing Ltd (formerly part of BP) donated the pound;500,000 plant to the college, with whom it works in partnership to train some 20 modern apprentices annually for employment at its Grangemouth works.
From November to February last session, six supervised modern apprentices worked hard to dismantle the rig in Grangemouth and reconstruct it on the college campus.
"During the installation, the rig was positioned using heavy lifting equipment, the site was controlled using permit to work and risk assessments - a lesson for the students in itself - and it's important to note they successfully completed the entire installation with no accidents," says Dean Williams, head of engineering.
The rig teaches the apprentices not only how to work the equipment but how to communicate with each other.
They learn how to carry out the correct procedures for breakdowns and can carry out start-ups, shut-downs and emergency shut-downs, just as these would happen on a live plant.
They learn three disciplines - process, electrical and mechanical - as well as the practical elements of permits to work, risk assessments and shift changeovers.
"It allows multi-disciplinary working and helps underpin the theoretical knowledge we give the students," says Ms Henderson.
"There is only so much you can teach in a classroom environment. To put it bluntly, the petro-chemical industry is dirty and smelly. Things don't work cleanly and can go wrong. So, you have to learn to problem solve practically.
"This gives the students confidence before they work on a real site, which can be quite a macho place, and that's a huge boost for them. Also, if they get it wrong working on the practice rig by opening a valve incorrectly, for example, they only get splashed with water. In reality, that could be a hydro-carbon."
Most modern apprentices are local, though the college is now attracting students from Aberdeen and the north-east who want to enter the oil industry. Apprentices have also recently come from Libya, where plant managers have been so impressed that they are considering sending their senior operators to be upskilled.
Forth Valley College is also about to open a new pound;250,000 indoor laboratory to teach distillation technology.
"It is a smaller version of the giant Grangemouth stacks," says Ms Henderson. "Only, this is a glass distillation plant, so the students will be able to see the distillation process taking place. They will be able to see the separation of elements from crude oil.
"But again, like the chemical rig, this plant is generic and companies like the whisky giant Diageo are taking an interest in it. It could also be used to teach brewing as well as distilling."
The modern apprentices begin their course as one-year full-time students at Forth Valley College, spending half-a-day a week at the INEOS plant in Grangemouth. If they are taken on as full-time apprentices, they will return to college on a day-release basis for the next two or three years.
"It's a very practical way of working," says Ms Henderson, "and it enables peer education, as the older apprentices working in Grangemouth can help keep the new apprentices on track."