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System Safety Literacy and Multidisciplinary Engineering Education: Teaching Accident Causation and Prevention

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Multidisciplinary Technical Session

Tagged Division

Multidisciplinary Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1363.1 - 22.1363.20



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Paper Authors


Cynthia C. Pendley Georgia Institute of Technology

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Cynthia C. Pendley is a Program Coordinator for the Center for Space Systems in the School of Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology where she has served since 2005. Prior to joining Georgia Tech Ms. Pendley was a product developer at Kimberly-Clark Corporation where she was awarded two patents for specialized filtration products. She received her B.S. in Textiles from Georgia Tech and is currently pursuing a Masters in Educational Psychology at Georgia State University. Ms. Pendley’s primary research interest is engineering education, specifically how motivation, interest and cognitive strategies affect problem-solving performance. She is a Senior Member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE).

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Joseph Homer Saleh Georgia Institute of Technology

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Joseph H. Saleh is an Associate Professor of aerospace engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He received his Masters degree from Harvard University and his Ph.D. from the Department of Aeronautics at MIT. Prior to Joining Georgia Tech, Dr. Saleh served as the Executive Director of the Ford-MIT Alliance, a research partnership between MIT and the Ford Motor Company. Dr. Saleh’s current research revolves around three broad topics: 1.) satellite reliability and multi-state failure analysis; 2.) programmatic engineering as it pertains to space programs (including a focus on space responsiveness, schedule risk and slippage, and system obsolescence); and 3.) accident causation and system safety. Dr. Saleh is the author or co-author of some 100 technical publications, including two articles in the Encyclopedia of Aerospace Engineering (Wiley) and 44 journal publications. He is an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Dr. Saleh has received several awards for his teaching and mentoring, including the Lockheed Dean’s Excellence in Teaching Award (2010) and the Most Valuable Professor (MVP) Award from the School of Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Tech (2008).

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System Safety Literacy and Multidisciplinary Engineering Education: Teaching accident causation and preventionAbstractThe recent explosion on the drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico and the ensuing catastrophic oilspill are stark reminders of the importance of safety competence and vigilance at the technical,managerial, and regulatory levels. High-visibility accidents such as the Bhopal, Chernobyl, orPiper Alpha tragedies, accidents that result in dramatic casualty tolls, significant financial lossesor environmental damage, are often invoked to motivate an interest in system safety.Unfortunately, this distinct class of adverse events, sometimes referred to as “organizationalaccidents” or “system accidents”, happen much more frequently than is reported by the media,and they occur in a variety of sectors, such as the chemical industry, oil and gas, mining,manufacturing, and transportation industries to name a few.In this work, we propose a multidisciplinary educational approach that engages engineeringstudents in safety issues, exposes them to the etiology and fundamental mechanisms of systemaccidents, and prepares them for the challenges of accident prevention in the 21st century. Wefirst make the case for the need of a strong emphasis on accident causation and system safety inengineering education across all traditional departments (aerospace, chemical, industrial,mechanical, etc.). We briefly review the intrinsically multidisciplinary nature of the topic—withits technical, organizational, economic, regulatory, and ethical dimensions—and we discuss whysystem safety literacy should be an essential part of the engineering student’s intellectual toolkit.We propose to bring together several traditionally isolated disciplines: systems engineering anddesign, reliability and risk analysis, dynamical systems and controls, organizational behavior andeconomics, to address the fundamentally multidisciplinary problem of system safety, and itsnemesis, system accidents. We then discuss a course on accident causation and system safetydeveloped and taught at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Aerospace Engineeringfor the past three years. We review some of the course’s outputs and provide a preliminaryassessment of its pedagogy, content, and student evaluations. The course is structured aroundlecture and discussion modules. The instructor-led lecture modules offer the core technicalcontent while the student-led discussion modules, which include technical articles, case studies,and videos/documentaries, invite active learning and critical thinking. The topics covered includethe “anatomy” of actual accidents, the concepts and safety principles of “defense-in-depth” and“safety barriers”, techniques of reliability and risk analysis, and the notion of safety culture.Finally, we discuss how the course design correlates with ABET learning outcomes.It is often said that the best technology transfer mode comes “wearing shoes”; by educating andengaging engineering students in the multidisciplinary issues of accident causation and systemsafety, educators can help infuse in them a proper system safety literacy before they enter theworkforce, and in so doing they will contribute, in the long-term, one small step toward accidentprevention.Keywords: system safety; accident causation; multidisciplinary course design

Pendley, C. C., & Saleh, J. H. (2011, June), System Safety Literacy and Multidisciplinary Engineering Education: Teaching Accident Causation and Prevention Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18902

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