FYS 101A - First-Year Seminar:

Technological Disasters and Their Causes

Matthias K. Gobbert and Ted M. Foster

Spring 2003 - Section 0101 - Schedule Number 2763

This page can be reached via my homepage at http://www.math.umbc.edu/~gobbert.

Class Presentations of Group Project

The class presentations of the group projects will be held on Tuesday, May 06, 2003 and Thursday, May 08, 2003 starting at 10:00 a.m. in MP 401. Please follow the link to the Program for the titles and abstracts. Just like for seminar talks, everybody is welcome to attend!

Grading Information

Final scores and grades ordered by your assigned number: FYS 101A

Group Work

A significant amount of work in the course will be performed by student groups comprised of four or five students.

Basic Information


The steamship Titanic. The space shuttle Challenger. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Disasters that should not have happened. Were they caused by inevitable random failure of technology or by human disregard for known engineering facts? This course will examine how engineering, science, mathematical modeling, and numerical computations relate to human actions in technological disasters. We will study several examples of recent history and try to understand how these tragedies resulted from human failure to correctly apply engineering and mathematical principles and/or to communicate properly.

The losses of two NASA spacecraft provide contrasting examples of the interplay of human and scientific issues. On the one hand, the NASA Mars Climate Orbiter was lost due to an error in converting English to metric units; this demonstrates the importance of having appropriate safety procedures in place to catch simple errors. On the other hand, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off, despite such procedures, because of inadequate understanding of key technical issues and the failure to communicate during the flight readiness review. Other examples include the sinking of the Titanic, the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the loss of the Sleipner Oil Platform, and the leakage of Willow Creek Dam in Oregon. These cases will be analyzed for their causes, both technical and non-technical, to illustrate the interaction of humans with science, engineering, mathematics, and statistics. We hope these analyses will inspire the study of mathematics, statistics, and computer science for applications to engineering and science, including an appreciation for the responsibilities involved in that work.

Students will conduct library and Internet research, write reports, and give class presentations. At least half of the class time will be occupied by non-traditional instructional activities including student presentations and class discussions, requiring everybody's active participation. The final projects will be performed by teams made up of two or three students, working under the guidance of a faculty mentor. They will culminate in written reports published on the course's webpage and in oral presentations in class. We expect students to greatly expand their skills in the analysis of sources, their critical thinking, and their communication skills. The course is designed for students with an interest in engineering, the physical sciences, computer science, mathematics, or statistics; however, no formal background in any of these fields is required and all students are welcome.

Biographical Sketches

Matthias K. Gobbert received a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Arizona State University in 1996. After one year as postdoctoral associate at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota, he joined the Department for Mathematics and Statistics at UMBC as Assistant Professor. His research areas include Numerical Analysis, Scientific Computing, and Industrial Mathematics. He teaches mathematics on all levels with a particular emphasis on courses in the numerical solution of partial differential equations and parallel computing. When not at UMBC, he enjoys hiking the great outdoors in Maryland and beyond.

Ted M. Foster received a Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering from the Johns Hopkins University in 1967. He worked for 36 years at Westinghouse and Northrop Grumman on research and advanced development in electronics, primarily in management of advanced technology for radar systems. For seven years he served as General Manager at the Westinghouse corporate Science and Technology Center in Pittsburgh with responsibility for corporate research in electronics and information technology. Since retiring from Northrop Grumman in 1999, he has been a visiting professor in the Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at UMBC and Assistant Dean of the College of Engineering. He has been active in broadening the education of engineering students to include non-technical skills important to successful engineering careers. Outside of work he is very involved in church activities, including renovation of an historic Presbyterian church in Annapolis and installation of a new pipe organ.

Other Information

Official UMBC Honors Code

By enrolling in this course, each student assumes the responsibilities of an active participant in UMBC's scholarly community in which everyone's academic work and behavior are held to the highest standards of honesty. Cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, and helping others to commit these acts are all forms of academic dishonesty, and they are wrong. Academic misconduct could result in disciplinary action that may include, but is not limited to, suspension or dismissal.

To read the full Student Academic Conduct Policy, consult the UMBC Student Handbook, the Faculty Handbook, or the UMBC Policies section of the UMBC Directory.

Copyright © 1999-2003 by Matthias K. Gobbert. All Rights Reserved.
This page version 3.1, May 2003.