Prism Magazine - February 2002
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Combating Terrorism Through Engineering

This special issue of Prism, which focuses on terrorism, reflects the increased attention that the entire nation is paying to security. This heightened concern about the infiltration of foreign terrorists into our country has not yet affected the engineering curriculum but, in my opinion, it should. After all, the very nature of engineering is the application of science to find new solutions to problems. Moreover, many of those solutions already exist in the lab, although they haven't been put to use yet. Unlike academicians and researchers in other disciplines, engineers are in the best position to understand and apply new technologies. At a bare minimum, the engineering curriculum has got to begin addressing security concerns.

A number of people in the engineering field have recently explored the relationship between engineering and security. In a lecture given by Ruth David, president and CEO of Anser, prior to September 11, she had some ominous predictions that later became all too real. In her presentation, entitled “Homeland Defense and the Global Village,” David, who holds an electrical engineering degree from Wichita State University, talked mostly about cyberweapons and biochemical attacks. She said, “technological advances driven by commercial interests—and readily available through the global village—have armed individuals and small organizations with the ability to hold American homeland at risk and to disrupt our way of life.” Prior to the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the response to that statement might have been, “If it's so easy, then why hasn't it happened?” But no one would make that response today.

Writing recently in Engineering Times, associate editor Rachael Davis discussed airport security problems. Davis focused on ways to prevent damage from explosions, detection of hazardous items in baggage and in cargo, and biometric technology, which matches images of faces with scanned photos in a computer database. A short article discussing security of water systems in the United States also appeared in that same issue of Engineering Times. In the December 10 issue of the Engineering News Record, Tom Ichniowski, a Washington journalist who covers government agencies, including the Corps of Engineers, provides a summary of concerns involving infrastructure, including dams, building codes, electric power generation and distribution, water treatment, and transportation. He described actions being taken by engineering firms to increase security measures in many of these facilities.

Those articles indicate that many in engineering practice are seriously concerned about security and are taking steps to include it in design and retrofit projects. But unfortunately at the present time, engineering education is paying little attention to security issues. One exception is in the area of cyber-terrorism. A faculty member in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Kansas has developed two courses on Internet security. These graduate level courses have proved extremely popular, and enrollment was capped at about 100 students. I am sure many other institutions have similar courses; however, it is my perception that there are few other engineering disciplines that have developed security-related courses.

When I was an undergraduate in the mid-‘50s, neither environmental impact nor serious safety was an important factor in engineering design. Today, it is routine and absolutely necessary that both of those factors play a major part in design specification. I think that security must now be added to that mix.

The necessity of including the environmental impact and safety considerations in design courses and laboratory work is reinforced by ABET, which requires a “working knowledge” of such aspects. This requirements are relatively recent to engineering education criteria, added after the engineering profession, along with the rest of society, became aware of and sensitive to those issues. I now think we should build concerns about security into the design process.

Several examples of doing just that come to mind. Aircraft design courses could include such items as cockpit security, limitation of damage to fuselages from bullet puncture holes, and detection of explosive cargo, for example. Chemical plant design courses have in the past focused on sizing of equipment, minimization of waste, consideration of safety concerns, and costs. Security of chemical plants has emerged as a serious worry and could become one of the factors considered in design courses. Building structural design courses could include the development of new codes that would minimize damage from terrorist attacks.

It is incumbent upon us as educators to prepare our students for problems in the real world. While I think engineering education has done an outstanding job of preparing and sensitizing graduates to environmental and safety problems, we need to broaden our approach to include items related to security. Security issues cut across all engineering disciplines, and throughout their careers, engineering graduates will be confronted with this new challenge. The engineers we turn out must understand the importance of security as they do their engineering work. It is a daunting task, but one that I think engineering educators are more than up to accomplishing.

 

Carl E. Locke, Jr. is the dean of engineering at the University of Kansas
and chairman of the ASEE Engineering Dean's Council.
He can be reached via e-mail at clocke@asee.org.


 
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