Failure as a teaching tool - Embedded.com

Failure as a teaching tool

In business school they use case studies to see what works and what doesn't. In law school they study old court arguments. But it's not often that an engineering school uses failure as a teaching tool.

I had this point brought home to me when speaking with Dave Nadler, a consulting engineer whose presentation, How NOT To Do Embedded Development! Practical Lessons From Real Projects That Almost Went Off A Cliff is scheduled for May 7 at ESC Boston. “In any of a number of professions,” Dave told me, “you study failures to learn how to recognize impending disaster and avoid it. But in engineering we don't. That's a peculiar thing to our field.” Yet in his experience most engineering projects that are trying to do something original don't end up well, for very unoriginal reasons.

Reflecting back on my own engineering schooling I can see his point. I have had dozens of courses on engineering theory, a few involving hands-on design, and only one that even touched on the topic of learning from past failures. It was the one-credit “Introduction to Engineering” course my freshman year at Va. Tech, and in one of the lectures the instructor showed us a video of “Galloping Gertie,” the suspension bridge over the Tacoma Narrows that failed months after its completion. That was followed by some discussion of resonance, and then we went on to other things. There was never any kind of “post mortem” discussion of design projects (successful or failed) to learn from by example.

Dave's presentation seeks to correct this educational deficiency through a group exploration of various design efforts, from automatic toll collectors to aircraft anti-collision systems, where he was called in to help rescue a failing project. But Dave's not a wisdom-from-Olympus kind of guy.


Join over 2,000 technical professionals and embedded systems hardware, software, and firmware developers at ESC Boston May 6-7, 2015, and learn about the latest techniques and tips for reducing time, cost, and complexity in the development process.

Passes for the ESC Boston 2015 Technical Conference are available at the conference's official site, with discounted advance pricing until May 1, 2015. Make sure to follow updates about ESC Boston's other talks, programs, and announcements via the Destination ESC blog on Embedded.com and social media accounts Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+.

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