Uncertainty and Risk: Bringing the Geosciences into the Civil Engineering ClassroomGretchen Miller, Civil Engineering, Texas A & M University
I suspect that certain concepts in my groundwater course irritate my students. That a rock labeled "sandstone" could have a hydraulic conductivity anywhere from 10-10 to 10-6 m/s, an outrageous range of five orders of magnitude. That that rock is definitely sedimentary, unless of course it is slightly metamorphosed. That a wide array of possible subsurface conditions could all produce the same map of the water table. They want to know what the answer is, not what it could possibly be. And therein is the teaching opportunity.Engineering firms increasingly require adroit workers, who are flexible in their approach to problems and who can quickly learn new skills. However, engineering students can become rigid in their thinking; after all, we drill them with years of practice problems that have one right solution. However, learning about the geosciences, with their relatively imprecise earth materials and random hydrologic processes, can help students overcome their reliance on formulaic ways of viewing the world. In my courses, I try to foster alternate modes of thinking through the inclusion of an emphasis on several important geoscience concepts.
Specifically, I think three principles from the geosciences can help all engineers to become better problem solvers and ultimately produce better designs:
- Embracing ambiguity, uncertainty, and risk
- Analyzing a system holistically and recognizing scale-emergent behaviors
- Understanding non-experimental, observational based modes of scientific discovery
I imagine that teaching sustainability concepts may yield similar cognitive benefits. For instance, life cycle assessment requires a systematic style of thinking about the ultimate consequences of design decisions, while the triple-bottom-line approach forces the simultaneous consideration of multiple design objectives. Moreover, engineers addressing sustainability must tolerate ambiguous, often conflicting societal objectives and the possibility that an "optimal" solution may look different to all parties involved. I look forward to working on integrating sustainability into my courses and hope that this workshop will further my progress.
As for those irritated groundwater students, they eventually calm down...until we talk about karst!