Standards and Engineering in the University Classroom
An Interview with Professor Norbert Delatte, Ph.D., P.E.
A professor and professional engineer, Norbert Delatte talks about the skills today’s engineering students need and the part that standards play in their education.
What skills must today’s engineering students have to be prepared for the work world when they graduate?
Engineering is changing rapidly, and graduating students must have a sound grounding in the fundamentals as well as the ability to seek out and acquire new knowledge as needed.
Our profession is constantly dealing with new problems, new technologies, new materials and new standards. As new materials are invented, for example, we have to figure out ways to understand and make the best use of their engineering properties. In addition, there are the trends of declining resources, sustainability and green buildings that are becoming increasingly important. Things in society and in the profession itself change how we practice engineering and how we need to be able to practice engineering. Students must be able to respond to these changes.
Students ready for the work world will need to be able to find and reference appropriate standards. As engineers prepare designs and specifications for construction or manufacture, they’re going to have to understand materials and how they behave, how they’re tested, and how to ensure quality.
What advantages are there for graduating students who have an understanding of standards compared to those who do not?
Graduating students who know how to locate, read and apply standards will be able to move into engineering practice much more quickly than those who do not. It will be much easier for them to read and understand project documents as well as prepare these documents. Perhaps more important, they will be better prepared to avoid the mistake of using standards inappropriately — the inappropriate citation of an outdated or incorrect standard can lead to project confusion and delays as well as increased costs or adverse effects on performance.
One of the key purposes of standards, as I see it, is to make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for from the standpoint of properties of the material that you want to use. If you’re trying to use a new material, and sometimes we are, you need to know how quality control is determined for a material and how the properties are described because engineering, with structural engineering as a good example, is done in terms of certain materials properties. Standards help describe them.
What do students need to understand about standards?
Students need to understand the role that standards play in project documents, and in quality assurance and quality control of construction and manufacturing. Because of the prescriptive nature of standards and their mandatory language, reading and understanding standards is an acquired skill that takes practice.
There are two things that structural engineers do where standards are very important. First, when you have to prepare a bid package of project documents, which will include the plans and specifications, the specs will refer to ASTM standards. If you’re including something in your project specification you probably ought to know what it is and you ought to make sure that you’re referencing the proper test method.
That’s one aspect. The other is that, in the course of the project, the engineer is going to get test results. In order to understand these test results you have to know how the tests are done, and their precision and bias — what you can really expect — because on the basis of the test results, you might have to change the concrete mix, you might have to make it stronger or you may need to make other changes.
I’ve heard of people trying to make a project correction for a measurement that is on the order of magnitude of the precision and bias — that is, they’re trying to correct the project based on essentially the “noise” in their data. You can’t do that.
You have to know what sort of inherent errors there are or how accurate something can be. Today’s students, who have a computer program or a calculator that will spit out an eight-digit number, need to understand that a lot of those numbers may not mean anything other than that there is some variability in processes. Students can lack a physical understanding or feeling for the quantities they’re dealing with.
If students understand precision and bias, they won’t have unrealistic expectations about how accurate a test can be, or they might understand that the results and the actual properties may be different by some measure. It’s a source of error that has to be considered in the engineering process, contrary to any tendency to say, “I have a test result and therefore that’s the number.”
How and why do you incorporate standards into your courses?
I have included the use of standards in my behavior and properties of concrete course and asked the students a series of 10 homework questions based on 10 different standards relating to concrete testing. Several of the questions concerned safety or precision and bias.
With regard to safety, I wanted them to understand that construction is a risky business and even the construction testing process is a risky business. For example, some of the fresh concrete testing standards indicate, as they should, that it is possible to get burns on your skin in the process of testing the material. So if there are safety issues associated with running a certain test, I’d like my students to be aware of that.
In our courses we also cover factors to account for all the things we don’t know — like the earthquake will be stronger than we expected, somebody will use the facility in a different way, the wind’s going to blow harder than we thought — and we put in factors for these. Because there’s uncertainty about the resistance of the structure itself, and part of that is due to the inherent variability of the materials, and since the properties of materials are described through these tests, students need to know how variable the test can be in describing a material property.
Another question that I asked my students is, “What is precision and bias?” In the lecture I talked about how you do a particular type of test. The textbook doesn’t cover how accurate the test is. For example, there are different ways of testing the strength of concrete; some are more accurate than others and the expected error is much lower. I wanted the students to understand that if you do a particular type of test, even if you do it right, there’s that additional source of error.
What value is there to being involved in a professional organization, either industry or standards or both, and what value does that ultimately have for your students?
As a professor, I have developed many very rewarding personal and professional relationships through my work in professional organizations. I encourage students to become involved with professional organizations, both locally and nationally. The contacts they make will be highly beneficial for career advancement.
Norbert J. Delatte Jr., Ph.D., P.E., F.ACI, is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. He was also recently appointed as CSU’s faculty coordinator for off-campus operations. Prior to joining the CSU faculty, Delatte served for 6 1/2 years on the faculty of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is the former chair of ACI Committee 325, Concrete Pavements, and a member of several ACI committees. He is also the former chair of the Technical Council on Forensic Engineering Executive Committee and the TCFE Education Committee, American Society for Civil Engineers. In addition, he is the editor of the ASCE Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice. Delatte is a registered professional engineer in the states of Ohio and Alabama and in the Commonwealth of Virginia.