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This U of T professor teaches engineering students to think like detectives

Professor Doug Perovic (right) and engineering technologist Sal Boccia look over images produced by a high-powered electron microscope (photo by Romi Levine)

Forensic engineering course uses real-life examples to teach students about problem-solving

The advanced materials lab looks like something out of a CSI-like crime show, with its massive, high-power electron microscopes – but what goes on there is deeply rooted in fact, not fiction.

The Ontario Centre for the Characterisation of Advanced Materials lab, part of University of Toronto's Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, allows forensic engineers to uncover mysteries that can only be solved on a microscopic level.

Utilizing the state-of-the-art lab is one of the many ways Doug Perovic, a professor in the department of materials science and engineering, teaches his students about forensic engineering. 

Perovic’s course is the first of its kind in Canada and can be taken as part of a certificate in forensic engineering – offered to undergraduate students for the first time this year. In it, students learn about cases where engineers played an important role in finding the root cause of an incident.

 

“Forensic engineering … is the reconstruction of an event, whether it be an accident or a failure of some kind of a component,” says Perovic. “It's taking that final result and then working backwards and piecing together what were the causes, what were the sequence of events to ultimately determine why this happened – the where, when, why, how and ultimately who is responsible.”

Read more about U of T's forensic engineering course

For example, there have been a number of cases where people have suffered serious injuries from broken wired glass. The glass, which contains a grid of thin wires, was originally thought to be a fire-proofing solution, but was discovered to smash easily on contact.

Under an electron microscope, Perovic explains, the wire and the glass appear to be disconnected – creating air cavities. 

“There's no good bonding between the steel wire and the glass. That lack of bonding gives you a much weaker overall structure,” he says.


A sample of wired glass is about to be inserted into the electron microscope to get a closer look at its flaws (photo by Romi Levine)

In these cases, Perovic’s work has led to changes in building standards.

“Wired glass is no longer in there categorized as a safety glass – it's been removed,” he says. “This kind of work helps effect change in codes and standards to improve the safety for the public.”

In addition to case studies, students in the course watch a mock trial, organized by Perovic, to learn about the role of forensic engineers as expert witnesses.

Jennifer Dixon, a fourth-year materials engineering student who took Perovic’s course in the spring semester, says every engineer can benefit from thinking like forensic detectives.  

“Forensic engineering is looking at when something fails. As an engineer, if you're designing, you should always keep in mind that your product could fail,” she says. “You've really got to think about what it is you're making, how you're sticking to the guidelines and how it's safe, otherwise you end up in court with the forensic engineers.”

For Perovic, teaching students to think this way is one of the hardest parts of teaching the course.

“There's far too little taught in investigative skills,” says Perovic. “There's a fire scene – what are you going to do? Where do you start? What process are you going to use to whittle down through what's not important to get to what's important – to connect all the dots, to reverse engineer. That is what this course is all about.”