Learning from Tragedy
Engineers take on big challenges. When things go wrong, people can die and companies falter. For engineering students, studying failure offers two benefits: Understanding the cause gets students thinking about design or system flaws and ways these can be improved. Failures also remind students of the high stakes of their chosen profession. Perhaps in no branch of engineering are the stakes higher than in aerospace, as demonstrated by the two crashes of Boeing 737 MAX jetliners, one last October, the second in March of this year. While the full story has yet to emerge, engineering educators have begun discussing the case with students and at least one, Michael Gorman, of the University of Virginia, plans to develop a course for engineering students that could start in the spring of 2020. For others, as our cover story reports, it’s an impetus for new research. (Boeing is a participant in ASEE’s Corporate Member Council.) Prism has reported several times in recent years on examples of engineering failure that educators helped expose, found valuable in their teaching, or both. These cases included the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the faulty General Motors ignition switch, the Volkswagen emissions scandal, uncovered by engineers at West Virginia University, and the Flint (Mich.) water crisis, brought to light in part by Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech and his students.
In Canada, a relic of failure—a rivet from a cantilevered bridge that collapsed near Quebec City during construction in 1907—is an integral part of the Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer, in which some 15,000 recent engineering graduates participate annually. “It reminds people that mistakes made by engineers can be catastrophic,” Bob Paknys, an electrical engineering professor at Montreal’s Concordia University, tells writer Pierre Home-Douglas in our feature, “Don’t Call It a Celebration.” While archaic in some respects—engineers recite an oath written by Rudyard Kipling—the ritual is considered a rite of passage and a highlight of young engineers’ careers.
Elsewhere in Prism, you won’t want to miss Mary Lord’s lively story—topped by one of her characteristically catchy headlines—on new grading methods using artificial intelligence. For weary teaching assistants, these new tools are invaluable.
We hope you enjoy the December Prism. May you also have a happy holiday season.