Home / News / Sofia Garcia Fracaro obtains her PhD degree in immersive learning technologies for training operators in the chemical industry

Sofia Garcia Fracaro obtains her PhD degree in immersive learning technologies for training operators in the chemical industry

Three years as ESR12 in the MSCA CHARMING project, conducting her research at Merck KGaA, following her PhD programme at KU Leuven,  with co-supervision from Newcastle University, Sofia Garcia Fracaro successfully defended her PhD thesis entitled “Effectiveness of Immersive Learning Technologies for Training of Operators in the Chemical Industry” on November 15th, 2022, in the Arenberg Castle of KU Leuven.

Sofia carried out her PhD research under the supervision of Dr. Michael Wilk (Merck, Germany), Prof. Kristel Bernaerts (KU Leuven, Belgium) and Prof. Jarka Glassey (Newcastle University, UK). She immediately started working as Project manager at Merck since beginning November. Congratulations, Sofia!

The summary of the PhD research along with a list of Sofia’s publications are available below.



Training of operators in the chemical industry, as crucial as it is, has limitations. Dangerous situations cannot be reproduced in classical training (e.g. classroom training, hands-on training on pilot installations), and chemical companies have to deal with the fact that supervisors are outnumbered by trainees and there is a lack of motivation from the learner and trainee.

In the fast-changing and developing world of immersive technologies for training, also the chemical industry could probably benefit from immersive training techniques. Immersive technologies, such as virtual reality (VR), have several benefits that can help improve the current training methodologies, such as recreating dangerous situations, replacing the instructor, providing real-time guidance to the learner, and in-training evaluation.

This dissertation aims to investigate the educational value and learning impact of virtual reality when applied to the training of operators and apprentices in the chemical industry. To this end, the thesis is divided into three parts in which different research questions are answered.

First, the state-of-the-art of applied immersive technologies for training in the process industry is defined by conducting a systematic literature review. The review demonstrates that there is an increasing number of immersive learning applications for the training of operators in the process industry reported, but most published studies are oriented towards the technology and little attention is given to studying the effectiveness and efficiency of immersive technologies for chemical operator training.

Hence, it confirms the need for systematic research on this matter. Virtual reality is chosen in further studies because enables the learner to step into a complete immersive computer-simulated world, such as a chemical plant or pilot plant, in which chemical procedures can be trained, taking advantage of the above-mentioned benefits of the technology.

In the second part, the feasibility of training operators in the chemical industry with virtual reality is assessed. More specifically, a classical hands-on training in the pilot plant is compared to a photorealistic virtual reality training (including instructions and hints for training). The study focused on apprentices as a relevant group of learners and two studies are conducted (one in Germany and one in Belgium). Overall, the findings of both studies suggest that the knowledge acquired in immersive technology training, such as virtual reality, is transferable to real operations in the chemical plant.

In the third part, two main research questions are examined. First, the performance of different participants in virtual reality chemical process training is evaluated with the aim to uncover any dependence between performance and participants’ features, such as age or cultural background. Second, the impact of the exposure to emergency scenarios in virtual reality on the operators’ perceptions is assessed.

To enable this investigation of the third part of the thesis, a tailor-made virtual reality application for the training of a complete chemical procedure has been developed, called “Operate Your Own Reactor” (OYOR). This application is a ∼60 min long chemical procedure in a batch reactor plant, including learning analytics elements, in-training assessment, hints system, verification of correct actions, training phase and evaluation phase. A framework of design guidelines, based on the multidisciplinary research team experience and literature, was put together and also published.

The virtual reality application “OYOR”, was used in an extensive VR study, which included 164 chemical operators and apprentices of the chemical industry from three different countries: Germany, France and Belgium. Findings from this study have significant implications for the understanding of how virtual reality training can be implemented in the chemical industry. To start with, it is highlighted that the employees from the chemical industry, regardless of their age, years of experience in the industry, prior experience with VR or cultural background, were able to complete the VR training. In addition, when analysing the performance of participants, evidence showed that operators younger than 40 years old performed the tasks faster, with fewer mistakes and hints, and less variability. Moreover, a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches was used to analyse the perception of operators regarding emergency training in virtual reality. Findings indicate that operators believe that emergency training would help them to better learn and be more prepared in case of a real-life emergency.

The findings of this thesis provide insights for immersive training implementations in the chemical industry, which shall be useful for stakeholders, such as companies or training centers, planning the future direction of training. Further work will be needed to fully understand the implications of virtual reality training in the context of industry and long-life learning. Aspects deserving attention are motivation and engagement, fine-tuning design guidelines, and how to cope with differences between the two big age groups.

List of peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals:

  • S. Garcia Fracaro, P. Chan, T. Gallagher, Y. Tehreem, R. Toyoda, K. Bernaerts, J. Glassey, T. Pfeiffer, B. Slof, S. Wachsmuth, M. Wilk, Towards design guidelines for virtual reality training for the chemical industry, Education for Chemical Engineers , Volume 36, July 2021, 2021, Pages 12-23, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ece.2021.01.014, download
  • S. Garcia Fracaro, J. Glassey, K. Bernaerts, M. Wilk, Immersive technologies for the training of operators in the process industry: A Systematic Literature Review, Computers & Chemical Engineering , Volume 160, 107691, 2022, DOI:10.1016/j.compchemeng.2022.107691, download


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