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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 16, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 42
JHU Course Catalog: Disaster! Learning from Engineering Catastrophes

Allison Marsh developed Disaster! as part of her field requirements for her Ph.D.

By Lisa De Nike

Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of articles dropping in on interesting classes throughout the university's eight academic divisions.

The course: Disaster! Learning from Engineering Catastrophes. An exploration into how engineering catastrophes, from the sinking of the Titanic to the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and more, influence successful design changes. Students investigate man-made disasters in fields such as space exploration, transportation and public works projects, and consider the consequences of engineering mistakes. They seek to answer the question, How do engineers define and respond to disaster? Undergraduate course; limited to 15 students. 3 credits. History of Science and Technology, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

Meeting time: 9 to 11:30 a.m., Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, summer 2004.

The instructor: Allison C. Marsh, doctoral candidate in the Department of History of Science and Technology, who was recognized with a Smithsonian Graduate Research Fellowship from June to August 2004. She developed the course as part of the field requirements for her Ph.D.

Syllabus: By examining man-made disasters in fields such as nuclear power, space exploration, transportation, infrastructure and public works projects, this broad-based course on the history of technology is aimed at encouraging students to think about the consequences of engineering mistakes. Questions raised include, How do different groups define a "disaster"? Do government agencies and private engineers define the term differently? What effects do disasters have on our understanding of engineering?

In each class, students compare older historic disasters with more recent project failures (for instance, the Johnstown Flood with the Three Gorges Dam construction) in an effort to analyze the circumstances surrounding each and to explore and analyze how the engineers and others involved learned from their mistakes. Readings on disasters — both historical and more recent — are augmented by videos of news reports and group discussions.

Course work: Requirements include two five- to 10-page papers. The first paper asked students to watch a "disaster" movie — preferably one based upon an actual event — and then to analyze the film's scientific and technological accuracy. Students grappled with the question, Can Hollywood make a popular movie that is historically, scientifically and technologically accurate? In their second paper, students researched a disaster that occurred in the last five years and placed it in historical context, addressing such questions as, What was the root cause of this disaster? Was there a precedent? What can we learn from failure?

Required reading: Photocopied selections from books and articles including Silent Spring by Johns Hopkins alumna Rachel Carson, St. Clair: A 19th-Century Coal Town's Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry by Anthony Wallace, The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough and Titanic Ships, Titanic Disasters: An Analysis of Early Cunard and White Star Superliners by William H. Garzke Jr. and John B. Woodward.

Overheard in class: "How do you define what is a real disaster and what isn't? Is it loss of human life? The loss of money or funding? Does that answer depend on the political and social context, too?"

Students say: "I have been extremely satisfied with this class. The excellent group dynamics combined with the extremely varied people in the class and the excellent leadership of Professor Marsh provide an exciting environment in which I love to defend my point of view, and am able to learn from others. I would recommend the class to anyone with a combined interest in history and engineering and a desire to participate in class discussions."
— Nikolai Begg, 17, of Wellesley, Mass.


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