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February 13, 2014

Failure cases teach engineering students at CSU what not to do

By John Cuturic

An engineering professor at Cleveland State University is bringing forensic engineering into the classroom, teaching students by looking at ways that engineers have failed in the past.

Norbert Delatte has written a website full of forensic engineering case studies (matdl.org/failurecases). Forensic engineering, according to the Technical Council on Forensic Engineering's website, is the application of engineering principles to study failures. At Cleveland State, Delatte brings some of these examples into the classroom.

"So for example, if I'm teaching a course on reinforced concrete design, I'll typically talk about some reinforced concrete failures," Delatte said.

Delatte said that after the latest grant to the Technical Council, many different universities are starting to take this approach and see how it works. He said that in his classroom, students have responded well.

"It's stories," Delatte said. "People like stories. And maybe it makes it a little bit more real. It reinforces the fact that they're going to have these responsibilities. If you're designing and building bridges, you have a responsibility to protect the public that's traveling over them."

Delatte started his work on forensic engineering during his years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said that both military officers and engineers have responsibility for people's lives and safety.

"I kind of draw parallels between the level of responsibility of being an engineer and being an army officer," Delatte said. "There's some relationships, but you don't want to stretch it too far."

Delatte, who has written a book on forensic engineering, recently gave an interview to the Plain Dealer about the way the cold snap will affect Cleveland buildings.

The Plain Dealer asked him about the effects of extreme cold, but he said that the real problem comes when there's freezing and thawing. When water can work its way in and then freeze and expand, that can hurt buildings. But when the temperature stays under freezing, conditions are actually better for buildings.