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Use Of A Courtroom/Trial In A Classroom To Illustrate Engineering Failures

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2001 Annual Conference


Albuquerque, New Mexico

Publication Date

June 24, 2001

Start Date

June 24, 2001

End Date

June 27, 2001



Page Count


Page Numbers

6.1090.1 - 6.1090.5

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Paper Authors

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Howard Medoff

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

Session 3553

Use of a Courtroom/Trial in a Classroom to Illustrate Engineering Failures Howard Medoff The Pennsylvania State University Abington College


If and when a component or structure fails, resulting in significant loss of life or property, people look for someone (or group) to blame. The assignment of responsibility for the engineering failure may be the task of a prestigious government/industry commission or agency, to be determined over many months using a variety of resources. As the process of determining the cause(s) of this event unfolds, simultaneously, legal actions may commence by injured parties looking for compensation for their losses. As a result, the United States court system, local, state and federal, has been placed squarely at the center of disputes that require sophisticated technical and scientific analysis in order to determine who was responsible for the failure. Naturally, as the level of technical sophistication of failed items continues to increase, it has become more difficult for the non-technical expert (judges, juries) to determine the root causes of these failures. Recent legal decisions (Daubert, Kumho) have been promulgated in an effort to make it easier for the courts to judge whether courtroom engineering experts can be allowed to state their opinions, and avoid spreading “junk science” in court.

Students, regardless of their intended major, have an interest in engineering disasters, the more spectacular the better. The first-year seminar “Learning Through Engineering Failure” focuses on well known engineering failures/disasters as a means to introduce students to engineering. As part of the learning process, the students stage a mock trial, with the subject being a well known example of an engineering failure/disaster. The trial is arranged to simulate a typical product liability action, with attorneys, plaintiff, defendants, expert witnesses, eyewitnesses, and public sector officials. The instructor acts as the judge, and the jury is made up of class members. A two week trial is convened, after which the jury arrives at a verdict. The verdict is then explained to the class. Initial feedback on the trial phase of the course was positive.


Within the last few years, many colleges and universities have required freshman to enroll in first year (or freshmen) seminars. Course content varies widely, but a few common themes are apparent: College survival skills (time management, library research) Computer skills Familiarization with intended major Develop critical thinking/reasoning skills Team work

“Proceedings of the 2001 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright O 2001, American Society for Engineering Education”

Medoff, H. (2001, June), Use Of A Courtroom/Trial In A Classroom To Illustrate Engineering Failures Paper presented at 2001 Annual Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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