Back in 2004, Prism profiled Marc Edwards after the Virginia Tech civil and environmental engineer found high lead levels in the District of Columbia’s water supply and faulted the local utility and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to alert the public. With the help of graduate students, he pinpointed the cause of the contamination: chloramine, a disinfectant that leaches the lead out of lead pipes. A dozen years later, Edwards once again has exposed a combination of lead contamination and bad official judgment—this time involving the Flint, Michigan, water supply. Prism Deputy Editor Mary Lord had an idea: Why not find other engineering academics who confront bureaucracy and powerful interests to serve the public?
The result is “Off-campus Crusaders,” in which Pierre Home-Douglas’s account of the Flint crisis is packaged alongside stories about seven other engineering researchers willing to step into the spotlight, putting their skills to a public purpose and their reputations on the line. They include Robert Bea of the University of California—Berkeley, who tangled with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following Hurricane Katrina, Heather Stapleton of Duke University, who has alerted the public and policymakers to the danger of chemical flame retardants widely used in furniture and other household goods, and Philip Koopman, of Carnegie Mellon, who identified the software flaws behind fatal car crashes.
An ability to work in teams is an important engineering attribute. But as a way to learn, teamwork can have drawbacks. General Electric’s Nancy Martin tells Assistant Editor Jenn Pocock she gets a little nervous when she sees a lot of teamwork on a student’s résumé. She worries that the job candidate hasn’t had to struggle through a problem on his or her own. For various reasons—including minority status—students also can get typecast into certain roles within teams and miss out on acquiring skills and knowledge they need. For our Teaching Toolbox this month, Pocock spoke with educators who know how to steer clear of common team pitfalls.
We hope you enjoy this month’s Prism. As always, we welcome your comments.