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Change In Course

The September 11 attacks could alter the course of engineering education as schools redesign their classes and reorder their research priorities in response to the crisis.

- By Alvin P. Sanoff

September 11 started out as an ordinary day for Cooper Union Engineering Dean Eleanor Baum. She was in her Manhattan office, about a mile from the World Trade Center, when she heard that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. She rushed to the roof in time to see the second plane crash into the other tower. She and some colleagues watched in shock as one tower and then the other collapsed. “Everyone on the roof was in tears,” Baum recalls. “It was the worst thing I ever saw in my life.”

Baum was scheduled to be at a breakfast meeting the next morning. The location: Windows on the World, the restaurant located at the top of one of the towers. No one in the restaurant on the morning of September 11 survived. “I'm alive because of one day of scheduling,” says Baum. “That's very sobering.”

After the horrific collapse of the buildings, students, alumni, and even parents of Cooper Union graduates, some having fled the inferno at the World Trade Center, came to the school seeking company and consolation. “We bought out a bunch of sandwich shops, broke open a liquor cabinet, fed and comforted people, and took glass out of faces with tweezers,” recalls Baum.

While Cooper Union was more directly impacted by September 11 than most engineering schools, that day changed the lives of engineering students and faculty at colleges and universities around the nation. Some of the changes were of a kind that affected all Americans—a diminished sense of security and a pervasive feeling of loss. Other changes were specific to the academic world, such as alterations in courses and in research priorities.

At Cooper Union, the impact on student learning was almost immediate. Students were asked to construct a three-dimensional model of the basement of the World Trade Center, using original plans that had been brought to them by an alumnus who is a structural engineer employed by New York City. The alumnus felt that the model would help those working at Ground Zero. As it turned out, he was correct. “The scale model was an enormous aid to city engineers as they were excavating the debris,” says Baum.

In the aftermath of September 11, Cooper Union held a series of forums for students and the community on such subjects as understanding Islam and terrorism. At a forum on technology, a structural engineer who works on the excavation of the site discussed why the buildings fell. “The forums,” says Baum, “served as a place where people could get technical information as well as more general information.”

As a result of the collapse, the school decided to institute a course for engineering and architecture students on how to design high buildings and make them safe. “Our schools of architecture and engineering have been brought closer together,” says Baum. September 11, she explains, “deepened our understanding that many problems are not solvable by those in one discipline. You have to involve a broad array of people.” Cooper Union also introduced a course on the psychology of terrorism that was oversubscribed. And the school's Center for Infrastructure has added an Institute for Urban Security to look at ways to make cities safer.

Focusing on Security

In electrical engineering courses, Cooper Union students and professors now discuss how to put redundancy in cellular and data networks so if a system gets knocked out, communication is not cut off. Maintaining communications systems in a crisis is also of concern to Mel Horwitch, director of the Institute for Technology and Enterprise at Polytechnic University, which has a classroom building located near Ground Zero that was closed for a number of days after the attack. “You need a strong and relevant management component when you look at the post-September 11 engineering challenges,” says Horwitch. “You can have the greatest technology in the world and the smartest technical people, but if you don't understand how to manage and implement it and don't ask the right questions, then it's not very successful.” September 11, he adds, is a signal that “we have to look at risk and security now.”

That's what a number of engineering faculty members are doing at City College, located several miles from Ground Zero in upper Manhattan. Engineering dean Mohammad Karim says that the faculty now are more involved in work related to security and surveillance. A chemical engineering professor, for example, is seeking support for a proposal to develop ways to safeguard chemical plants.

At City College, professors are using the collapse of the Twin Towers to explain structural stress and fatigue and to discuss issues like heat transfer and heat exchange. Some students working on design teams are grappling with such issues as the swaying of buildings and the breakdown of large structures.

Amid all the turmoil and sadness, there have been some lighter moments. Dean Karim recalls that law enforcement authorities came knocking after receiving reports of mysterious blue and green lights shining in the sky from somewhere on campus. It turns out that the lights were lasers that are part of a project to measure weather patterns. “Issues you never had to consider before, you have to be careful about,” says Dean Karim.

Not only schools in New York have felt the impact of September 11. At the Illinois Institute of Technology, students in a required projects course led by a civil engineering professor undertook an investigation into the collapse of the World Trade Center. The students have been able to turn for advice to the chief of the Chicago Fire Department and an engineer who performed structural evaluations of the center.

Alan Myerson, dean of engineering and science at IIT, says that as a result of September 11 the school introduced two new electives, a course on Islam in the modern era and another on the history of biological and chemical warfare (a similar course on bioterrorism is offered this spring at Drexel University). As part of a potential initiative to increase student knowledge about other cultures, the school is thinking about ways to foster foreign language study.

At Louisiana State University, a new minor was introduced in the engineering department last fall—ironically before the attacks—that addresses disaster planning and response. When “Introduction to Hazards” was announced last August, 25 students signed up; the number has jumped to 42 this semester. “I believe that they are not as motivated by 9-11 but have had an interest in this area for some time,” says environmental studies professor John Pine, who is teaching the class. “But possibly 9-11 made this interest more intense.”

Other schools have addressed the events of September 11, though in a more limited way than some big-city peers. At Wichita State University, for example, lectures sponsored by the Wichita Council of Engineering Societies that deal with the rise and fall of the World Trade Center have been incorporated into an ethics seminar taken by seniors majoring in engineering. And some are suddenly looking at themselves as potential targets. Idaho State University, for example, has beefed up security surrounding a small training reactor in the engineering school's basement.

In the years ahead, a number of engineering schools are likely to incorporate what happened on September 11 into what they teach. For some, doing so may simply mean using the collapse of the Twin Towers to illustrate an important engineering point. For others, it may mean developing new courses or modifying existing ones. Unquestionably, the more future engineers study the collapse of the Twin Towers, the more likely they are to build skyscrapers better capable of withstanding threats the likes of which they could not have imagined only a short time ago.

 

Alvin P. Sanoff is a writer and higher education consultant based in suburban Washington, D.C. He can be reached at asanoff@asee.org.