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Science Magazine Prize Goes to High School Engineering Course



Joe Immel, Ph.D., teacher of the Root Cause Analysis course at Technology High School. [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,” said 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 was published on 26 April.

“Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science,” said 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 were college-level invertebrate zoology lessons. 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 said. Immel went on to earn degrees in biology at the University of California, including a Ph.D. 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.



Students create a sticky note flow chart detailing the root causes of the Macondo Well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that sank Deepwater Horizon on 22 April 2010. [Images courtesy of Joe Immel]

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


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 said. “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, about the Columbia space shuttle disaster, 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 the 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 said. “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 said. “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 said the collaborative aspect of the process is key to the success of the analyses. Melissa McCartney, associate editor at Science, lauded the approach.

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

Immel said the process of figuring out what went wrong in a disaster can be very compelling.”It’s just immense fun,” he said. “It’s what piques the intellect of the people on the National Transportation Safety Board.”

Immel added 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 said. “The more you do it, the better you get.”


Read the essay, “Root Cause Analysis For Young Engineers,” by Joe Immel.

Read more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.




Michaela Jarvis