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The Loss Of The Space Shuttle Columbia: Portaging The Leadership Lessons With A Critical Thinking Model

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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

Tools of the Trade

Tagged Division

Engineering Management

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.1244.1 - 13.1244.18



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Paper Authors


Robert Niewoehner U.S. Naval Academy

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CAPT Rob Niewoehner, USN, PhD is Director of Aeronautics at the US Naval Academy. Prior to joining the Naval Academy faculty, he served as a fleet F-14 pilot, and then as an experimental test pilot, including Chief Test Pilot for the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, throughout its development.

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Craig Steidle US Naval Academy

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Rear Admiral Craig Steidle, USN (ret) holds the Rogers Chair of Aeronautics at the U.S. Naval Academy. In uniform, RADM Steidle served as a combat A-6 pilot, test pilot, F/A-18 Program Manager, F-35 Program Manager, and Vice Commander of the Naval Air Systems Command. He subsequently served as Associate Administrator of NASA for Deep Space Exploration.

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Eric Johnson US Naval Academy

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Midshipman, US Navy. Midn Johnson is a graduating senior.

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

The Loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia: Portaging the Leadership Lessons with a Critical Thinking Model Abstract Business schools have long valued case studies as a tool for both broadening a student’s perspective, and provoking them to deeper consideration of complex situations. The challenge with case studies is assuring the portability of the lessons; we don’t expect students to see situations imitating those they’ve studied, hence the goal must instead be habits of mind and principles of action which the student can portage to the circumstances of their professional lives. This paper evaluates the suitability of Richard Paul’s Critical Thinking model as a template for evaluating engineering enterprise thinking habits and organizational behavior, using the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report1 as a case study. Specifically, the authors sought to answer the following questions: “Does the Paul model of Critical Thinking provide a beneficial vocabulary and construct for evaluating complex technological case studies?” and, “Does the structure of Paul’s model enhance the portability of the lessons?” The authors determined that with minor refinement, Paul’s model provides a powerful vocabulary for complicated case study analysis, and that familiarity with the model provides students and case study participants with both a mechanism for analysis and a means for portaging lessons to other professional situations and organizations.


The analysis and evaluation of our thinking as engineers requires a vocabulary of thinking and reasoning. The intellect requires a voice. Richard Paul and his colleague, Linda Elder, from the Foundation for Critical Thinking, have proposed a critical thinking model documented in various sources2,3,4, including over a dozen Thinkers' Guides that apply this model to diverse disciplines including science5 and ethics6. Their Thinker’s Guide to Engineering Reasoning specifically adapts Paul’s model to the intellectual work of engineers, exemplifying the questions that experienced engineers ask of themselves and others.

In the paper below, the Paul model is first summarized using definitions drawn from Paul, Niewoehner, and Elder’s Engineering Reasoning.7 This summary includes brief discussions of our approach in introducing the Paul model and vocabulary to this class of students. Next, the findings of the CAIB report are summarized for those who are not familiar with its contents. Importantly, we do not seek to re-analyze the CAIB’s findings or recommendations, nor further excoriate those whose mistakes may have contributed to the mishap. We cannot improve on what we regard as a masterful contribution to the literature describing high technology organizations. No, it is instead the Paul model which is under examination. Our question was solely whether the Paul model was adequate to the purpose of opening the CAIB report and its complexities to our undergraduate students in ways that they could retain and apply.

A Critical Thinking Model For Engineering

Engineers and scientists are quite comfortable working within the context of conceptual models. We employ thermodynamic models, electrical models, mathematical models, computer models or even physical models fashioned from wood or clay. Paul, Niewoehner and Elder apply

Niewoehner, R., & Steidle, C., & Johnson, E. (2008, June), The Loss Of The Space Shuttle Columbia: Portaging The Leadership Lessons With A Critical Thinking Model Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3354

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2008 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015