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Excellence Or Disaster? A Thought Experiment On Grading, Teaching And Learning In Engineering School

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Preparing the Future Workforce in Aerospace

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

13.587.1 - 13.587.16



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Paper Authors


Narayanan Komerath Georgia Institute of Technology

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Narayanan Komerath has taught aerospace engineering, and served as an undergraduate and graduate advisor at Georgia Tech since 1985, at the rank of Professor since 1994. He has been an ASEE member since 1993, and as member of its aerospace executive committee since 2004. He served as a Boeing Welliver Faculty Fellow in 2004, as Fellow of the NIAC since 2002, a Senior Fellow at the Sam Nunn Center for Strategy, Technology and Policy, and a Hesburgh Senior Teaching Fellow at Georgia Tech's Center for Teaching and Learning. He had guided 15 PhDs and over 130 undergraduates in research, and taught over 2000 aerospace engineers.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Excellence or Disaster? A Thought Experiment on Grading, Teaching and Learning in Engineering School


This paper considers the hypothesis that engineering faculty are buying popularity and avoiding responsibility in courses, with potentially disastrous consequences for engineering education. It explores the literature on grade inflation and its relationship with the misuse of student evaluations as the sole metric of teaching and learning. It considers what has changed recently in these ancient controversies, and whether these changes that cause a mutual admiration vortex of happiness, might lead to a resonant amplification of the problem with disastrous implications for U.S. engineering education in general and aerospace engineering education in particular. It considers what individual faculty might be able to do to break the strengthening vortex.


I cannot provide quantitative proof of my hypothesis. But a story might help convey why it should be read by expert educators. On a rainy evening many years ago, a train left Pamban, the last station on mainland India before the 2km-long Pamban bridge1 to Rameswaram Island. The wind was strong and the rain heavy, but the train had 110 passengers and five crew, many heading for the 1-hour ferry to Sri Lanka the next morning, and the railway tried to be on time. The steel bridge must have swayed in the wind, but the train got across safely, and reached the outer signal of Dhanushkodi station on the causeway – the last station before the ferry pier. The signal was red, and the train stopped. He had no quantitative data to indicate any danger where he was, but visibility was too poor and it was likely that something may have fallen across the track, so he held his position, and blew the whistle at intervals. He waited, lacking any other data. At five minutes to midnight, the tidal wave driven by the worst cyclone in 500 years rose out of the gloom and smashed the train broadside into the sea. Everyone perished. Ironically the station, a few hundred yards beyond, mostly survived. But everyone just did their jobs.

How is this important to aerospace education? I had traveled on that line many times as a child. Since the bridge was down for the next year, the pier disappeared and the ferry was found 3 miles inland, this got me my first airplane ride on the way back to Sri Lanka, and the important lesson that one should heed the flight attendant’s advice to wear earplugs, because propeller noise on a DC-3 is not as benign as the rock music of a diesel locomotive. But it is also important because I have wondered why they didn’t stop that train at Pamban, or why the driver did not ignore the signal and head for the station. It was probably because there was no quantitative proof of what was coming. Weather prediction and communications were not so advanced in December 1964. The storm came out of the deep Indian ocean, squeezed north between India and Sri Lanka where it reached 180mph wind speeds. In the 9-foot shallows of the Palk Strait, the storm surge became a monster tidal wave. When they finally realized how bad things were, it was far too late. Quantitative proof came much later2.

Komerath, N. (2008, June), Excellence Or Disaster? A Thought Experiment On Grading, Teaching And Learning In Engineering School Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3250

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