Reviewing and analyzing failures is a crucial element in engineering. As most experienced design professionals know, being able to identify the problem is most often more important than being able to implement well-known solutions. Fundamentally, failure analysis is the diagnosis of the root causes or underlying phenomena of results that are puzzling and costly, such as last year’s collapse of a coal-ash impoundment in Tennessee, or puzzling and tragic, such as the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis. So why are too few students being exposed to this kind of critical thinking early in their engineering education?

Members of professions demand the right to be self-policing. The reasoning goes that only members know when other members have crossed the line ethically or have been negligent in exercising professional judgment. If design professionals want to maintain public trust, they must be strict in their policing and get to the bottom of failures. The core of engineering is technical knowledge developed from study and experience. No other experience is more valuable than the experience of failure, and it must be shared honestly and completely.

Fundamentally, the study of failures is about telling stories—an eminently human way to share traditions, confess shortcomings, prevent future occurrences, reassure those who depend on us and nurture our sense of community as design professionals. But stories have to be appropriate to be useful, suited to the students’ level of expertise.

For first-year students, the instructor must pose clear, significant questions. Higher-level undergrads must be asked to develop their own questions based on critical thinking. For graduate students and practitioners, the presenter should act only as a client or owner in a simulation of actual practice.

Failure analysis at all levels of education involves three steps that underlie all engineering: posing diagnostic questions, testing answers and evaluating alternatives using critical thinking. A good failure case history must include the conditions, limits and objectives of the analysis and must provoke the students to identify crucial questions.

D. Joseph “Joe” Hagerty
“No other experience is more valuable than the experience of failure, and it must be shared honestly and completely.”

The most successful case histories focus on an intriguing puzzle, presented in a way that can be understood by students who then can think critically about the situation. Critical thinking is the essence of engineering, but instructors seldom describe or illustrate it explicitly in their classes. There is far too much emphasis on presentation of theory, with only regurgitation of the material required to pass the course exam.

By using critical thinking in the study of real events, students can be guided to identify all the assumptions made in analysis and design. They can see the underlying purposes for various positions taken, recognize bias and different points of view among participants, and focus on fundamental concepts that describe what happened in a particular case.

The instructor must demand students adhere to standards such as logic, relevance, accuracy, fairness and clarity in evaluating all the data available. Posing the following fundamental questions are essential: What happened? How did it happen? Who were the actors in the event? Why did it happen?

Students and practitioners alike must learn to ask these questions, or they put at risk their professional development and the future welfare of the public they serve. Failure analysis is a perfect way to acquire that skill.

D. Joseph “Joe” Hagerty has been a professor in the civil and environmental department at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Ky., for more than 35 years. This Viewpoint is adapted from a paper he wrote that is to be published by and presented to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Geo-Institute next February. The author of seven books, he has also served as a consultant to the Army Corps of Engineers.