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Columbia Group dives into safety issues in aeronautics and other systems

The Columbia Group, a multidisciplinary collection of faculty, research staff, and graduate students based in the Engineering Systems Division, began meeting in 2003 to dive into safety culture questions surrounding the Columbia Space Shuttle accident.

One year later, the emerging intellectual products include a best paper award from the System Safety Society, a book chapter, and an Engineering Systems Division (ESD) symposium paper, which has become a popular download from the Internet. These early works illustrate ESD's commitment to interdisciplinary collaborations.

Professor Nancy Leveson of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, who is a member of the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, convened this working group by calling on a colleague she'd met through ESD gatherings. She and Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, a senior research scientist at the Sloan School who is executive director of the Engineering Systems Learning Center and an expert in large-scale systems change, invited a few colleagues to meet, and the group was born.

"One of the reasons I came to MIT was because of ESD and the opportunity to work with people in multiple disciplines," said Leveson. "This is one of the few universities in the world that houses a structure for promoting this kind of interdisciplinary work. ESD gets us talking so we know who is there, what they are interested in, and then people form these natural group interactions."

Professor John Carroll of Sloan and ESD, a social psychologist, joined the Columbia Group, as did Betty Barrett, an organizational behavior expert in the Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development who is associate director of the Engineering Systems Learning Center. Several of Leveson's graduate students also are members of the group.

Building robust interdisciplinary models

"In the first year, we started writing papers about the Columbia accident, generalizing it to safety culture from multiple viewpoints," Leveson said. "This year, we are looking at how to model and engineer safety culture so we prevent accidents."

The Columbia Group's challenge is to develop a robust model that will balance the need for quantifiable evidence with the need for capturing qualitative relationships and complex cultural dynamics. "Part of that involves developing sophisticated, rigorous, technical models that are understandable to the engineering community, but that are attentive to organizational and institutional dynamics," said Cutcher-Gershenfeld. "Our models won't be exactly the same as existing technical models, but they will be mathematically based, technically rigorous, repeatable, and applicable in other settings."

Leveson says her participating engineering students have broadened their research focus and begun taking management and social science classes. "This group was a tremendously important influence on my students and on their dissertations, which now have faculty from multiple schools. What they are doing uses a more interdisciplinary way of attacking problems."

Aeronautics and astronautics Ph.D. student Nicolas Dulac will apply what he learned in the group to his research on the safety architecture of the new NASA Mars-Lunar space exploration system.

"Coming from a very technical background, I had a tendency to believe that technical problems have technical solutions," Dulac said. "My experience at MIT and with the Columbia Group helped me realize that soft problems are often more difficult to address than hard ones. What I like the most about MIT is the shared belief that a multidisciplinary-systems approach is necessary to build and operate complex systems."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 3, 2004 (download PDF).

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