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Designing for Extremes: CEE Program Challenges Students to Plan for the Unexpected

A new program in risk and resilience considers how changes to our interconnected world can affect engineered systems.

In the design of a water supply system, a power grid, or even a cyber network, engineers plan for the range of conditions that their structures are likely encounter. But as the world becomes more connected, our modern engineered systems are subject to ever-evolving demands that can differ from what the designers originally anticipated––sometimes in completely unexpected ways. In a new suite of educational programs, faculty in Duke University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) aim to teach students how to anticipate and design for extreme events, like natural disasters, public health crises or terrorist attacks.

Traditional reliability engineering is concerned with how to safely design systems for well-understood behavior and operating conditions. The new Risk and Resilience Program explores how systems can sustain and even improve their performance, under broader, unexpected situations. To do so, this new program challenges both graduate and undergraduate students to examine and plan for a wide range of physical, environmental, and social scenarios that may be judged to have low probability but high consequence. Such situations, caused by severe weather, power outages, or cyber disruption, could affect all sectors of society if individual components, or the entire system, were not designed to be robust or adaptable to extreme events.As the world grows more connected, one change or risk to our engineered systems can have far-reaching consequences.

“We’re trying to put this program in the context of a future that we know is going to be changing, while recognizing there’s a lot of uncertainty and variability about exactly what those decades-long changes will be,” says CEE professor Henri Gavin, a co-creator of the program.

Recent events have highlighted the need for systems that account for uncertainty in their design. For example, in February of 2017, more than 180,000 people were evacuated from Oroville, California after unexpected erosion and intense rain created a hole in one of the emergency spillways of the Oroville Dam, threatening to flood the surrounding area.

“We’re seeing regular occurrences of events that we could have never previously predicted, owing, at least in part, to a changing climate, enhanced global connectivity, and evolving social institutions,” says Mark Borsuk, associate professor in CEE and the program’s co-creator. “After these unexpected events, I think people are more aware and sensitive of the need to be better at assessing risk. We also know that we can’t always predict things accurately, so it means we need to create systems that are robust in case things don’t turn out exactly as we expect.”

To prepare engineers who can take a broad, systems-based approach to addressing uncertainty and risk, Duke CEE is creating a new PhD track in Systems, Risk, and Decisions, as well as launching a new Master of Risk Engineering program in the fall of 2018. The goal is to provide students with both a deeper and broader training in risk analysis and design than they would have received during their undergraduate career, all while continuing to build on traditional engineering principles.  Graduates will be prepared for careers in fields such as environment and population health, materials and structures, energy and climate systems and even finance and reinsurance.

In addition to the new graduate tracks, Borsuk and Gavin are introducing the basics of risk and resiliency to undergraduates in courses such as “Uncertainty, Design, and Optimization” (CEE 201L) and “Engineering Systems, Optimization, and Economics,” (EGR 305). In CEE 201L, students create models of complex systems, like water resources, stock prices and power systems, and then use these models to optimize system performance and evaluate resilience to time-varying hazards. In addition to facing the challenge of the unknown, these designs are also constrained by the financial, physical, or societal limitations imposed by the real world.

“We initiated this course to provide realistic design experiences early in their curriculum,” says Gavin. “We’ve tried to make the projects as realistic as possible by placing them in the mess of the real world. Students quickly learn that accounting for uncertainties is essential for a robust design.”

The new focus on risk, uncertainty and resilient system design will connect to Duke CEE’s research strengths in areas such as heavy data analytics for complex infrastructure systems, chemical and material impacts on environmental and public health, climate change and water resources, and geomechanical systems, according to department chair Mark Wiesner. “Our faculty are developing the advanced computational tools and measurement techniques to help us understand a wide range of urgent issues facing the world today,” he says, “and our integrated approach across disciplines gives us an unusual advantage.”

“This is a way to modernize our view towards civil engineering and give students that broader, interdisciplinary perspective,” adds Borsuk. “We’re collaborating with researchers from fields such as law, global health, environment and policy to approach these problems in a systemic way, and it’s exciting because there is a lot of untapped potential.”

In that spirit, Borsuk is working to spearhead similar initiatives in different areas at Duke. He is a lead member of the “Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk” (D-CIPHER) Bass Connections Project, which will be investigating the multiple technical, societal, and cultural dimensions of risk. During the 2017-2018 project, the interdisciplinary team will focus on the history of fluorine refrigerants, which were found to deplete the ozone layer and were successfully phased out, with the unintended consequence of generating substitutes that are potent greenhouse gasses.

Sometimes solving one problem just introduces another,” says Borsuk. “Through this collaboration we’re approaching these situations from multiple angles, and we’re really trying to understand how differing perspectives on risk and uncertainty inform and influence decisions.”