Public Release: 

Science magazine prize goes to high-school engineering course

Students develop sophisticated analyses of design problems behind huge disasters

American Association for the Advancement of Science


IMAGE: Joe Immel, Ph.D., is teacher of the Root Cause Analysis course at Technology High School. view more

Credit: [Image courtesy of Karley Gomez Photography]

A classroom approach that helps high school seniors analyze engineering disasters as though the students were professional investigators has been selected to win the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.

"When you compare what the students say and write with what the National Transportation Safety Board has in monographs about these disasters, they're comparable," says Joe Immel, who teaches the course module, called Root Cause Analysis, at Technology High School in Rohnert Park, California. "The students' products are really amazing."

The Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students' natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing "module," the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about Root Cause Analysis will be published on April 26.

"Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science," says editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts. "We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding laboratory modules promoting student inquiry to reach a wider audience. Each winning module will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to these valuable free resources."

Immel first got interested in science when he was in junior high. An eighth-grade teacher took him and his classmates through what Immel would later learn was generally taught in college-level invertebrate zoology classes. As a student, he was locked on, and as a future educator, he would look back at the experience and realize that young students are more capable than is often believed.

"When it comes to kids, you can ask them to do something and as long as no one tells them it's impossible, they can do it," Immel says.

Immel went on to earn degrees in biology at the University of California, including a PhD at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He worked as a scientist, then as an engineer. He and his wife, Barbara Kephart Immel, then started a consulting firm for the biotechnology, medical device and pharmaceutical industries.

At age 50, Immel earned a teaching credential, having discovered he really enjoyed volunteering in schools when his own children were small. He took a job at Technology High School, a public alternative school with a project-based, group-oriented curriculum.

Having seen how a kind of root cause analysis was routinely used as a part of quality control in the pharmaceutical industry, Immel says it occurred to him that the process would provide an interesting approach for students. "I said, 'I bet seniors would like to do that,'" he says.

Immel's curriculum module "Root Cause Analysis: Methodologies and Case Studies" helps students use a systematic approach to analyze engineering failures such as the Titanic disaster and the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis. As Immel predicted and has had confirmed, "Spectacular failures interest high-school students greatly."

As the students consider each disaster, they are coached to pursue root causes by persistently asking "why" at least five times, and to keep asking "who, what, when, where, how?" They are encouraged to pursue a course of thought beyond where they would normally go, keeping an open mind as they push through premature conclusions.

"People in general look for an answer, and when they get one, they stop and say, 'This is it,'" Immel says. "We teach the students that we're liable to be fooled by symptoms, we're liable to be fooled by things that are more superficial than we think they are."

The students are asked to find at least two root causes for each disaster case study, and then to explore corrective and preventive actions first in class discussions and then in the "executive summaries" they prepare.

The fifth and final case study is presented in a way that puts the students in the role of real engineers. The students are put into six groups, with each group privy only to what one real-life engineer knew at the time of a disaster, in this case the Columbia space shuttle disaster. Each group goes over the phone calls, memos and documents belonging to that real-life engineer.

One representative from each group speaks at a mission management meeting in a kind of role play. After the meeting, the setting switches to the day of the disaster, and the students as engineers must face the public and the media in a brutal mock press conference.

After the press conference, students are sent off to individually prepare their executive summaries. Unlike with usual term papers or exams, however, they are required to communicate via phone, text, email or even Facebook with their classroom peers from all of the groups, in order to prepare the best analyses. The summaries are due the very next day.

"The members of each group only initially learned one-sixth of the information, so they have to fill in the blanks," Immel says. "We have instant communication, it's the way of the world. So we need to use it."

Students often stay up all night conferring and preparing their summaries. "They are fascinated by the case studies, and they throw themselves into it," Immel says. "That's all they want to do. We have to negotiate with other instructors at the end of the year while this is going on, because the students don't want to do anything else."

Immel says the collaborative aspect of the process is key to the success of the analyses. Melissa McCartney, associate editor at Science, lauds the approach.

"While this module is specific to engineering," McCartney says, "it employs collective intelligence and collaborative learning, both of which are important in any STEM discipline."

The process of figuring out what went wrong in a disaster can be very compelling, Immel says. "It's just immense fun," he says. "It's what piques the intellect of the people on the National Transportation Safety Board." Immel adds that the human tragedy associated with the case study disasters is not overlooked--an analysis of the Deepwater Horizon blowout begins with a slide show of the 11 people who died there, for example--and students develop a profound appreciation for the care that should go into every engineering task.

Students who have experienced the module often report back to Immel that they have continued to use Root Cause Analysis as they move on in their education and training.

Immel believes Root Cause Analysis should be a part of new science education standards, which call for more emphasis on engineering.

"I would love to see a full-semester course with many more case studies," he says. "The more you do it, the better you get."


The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science as well as Science Translational Medicine and Science Signaling. AAAS was founded in 1848, and includes 261 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!,, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.