What is forensic engineering?

I saw reference in a magazine to a student who expressed interest in forensic engineering. (Ref. 1) I wondered what I would tell her if asked. I came up with the following after a bit of thought:

  1. Describe the work and give a few examples
  2. Stress the importance of being thorough and objective!
  3. Note, of course, that forensic engineers serve the judicial process
  4. But also note that most disputes settle out of court, fortunately
  5. Get ready to be surprised at the great number of different categories of experts – many 1,000s
  6. Stay in your sandbox if you do get into forensic work!
  7. Think about where you might practice in future
  8. Get a basic degree
  9. Get experience

For sure, define the work. Remind them that engineers, in general, apply science and mathematics to make materials and the energy in nature useful to people. Materials like steel, concrete, wood, plastic, water, and soil and rock.

Forensic engineers, in particular, apply science to determine the cause of problems in the built and natural environments. To figure out what sometimes goes wrong.

Give examples, like why a building or a tank collapses, the ground sinks, a bridge fails, a crane falls, the land slides, a nail gun misfires, a property floods or is contaminated, a road washes out or a person slips and falls.

At the same time remembering when doing this that our clients have budgets, time frames and interests that are sometimes at odds with a forensic expert’s need to be thorough and objective.

When a dispute arises from a problem and the matter goes to court, a forensic engineer serves the judicial process even though the engineer has been retained by one of the parties to the dispute. Hence the adjective forensic meaning ‘belonging to, used in, or suitable to courts of law or to public discussion and debate’. (Ref. 2) Fortunately, more than 90% of disputes are settled out of court.

A student should note the different engineering disciplines that identify the cause of problems. For example, civil, mechanical, electrical, bio-mechanical and environmental. Also note associations like the American Society of Civil Engineers and others in the US, Canada and elsewhere representing the interests of these disciplines.

S/he should research the different categories of forensic expertise that have developed – many 1,000s – by visiting a site like www.seakexperts.com. (also see Ref. 3) SEAK, Inc. is an expert training firm in the U.S. that offers courses on expert work. Expert Communication, Inc at www.expertcommunications.com is another in the U.S. that guides forensic experts.

Knowing the different disciplines, and the multitude of categories, will help a student know what specialty to follow in forensic engineering, if their interest continues to develop. It will also help you to stay in your sand box when practicing – do what you’re qualified to do, nothing else.

I think a student must get a basic degree in engineering then practice for a while. The way forward will then come into focus and the additional studying and courses needed.

I searched a little on line for graduate degrees in forensic engineering. I saw courses mentioned but no degrees during my quick search. I’m certain there is something out there. A student should evaluate carefully what is offered and it’s recognition by the public.

I saw courses offered in forensic archaeology in the U.S. and England in a practical encyclopedia on that field of study. (Ref. 4. A good read on engineering?) For certain there are comparable courses in forensic engineering, and maybe degrees.

Skimming through the encyclopedia I was struck by how the basic detailed investigation in forensic archaeology, and the methods used, echoes that in my work, and I’m sure in other disciplines. Sounds boring but here goes: Gather data. Analyse data. Draw conclusions. Form opinion. Repeat, if additional data comes in and your initial hypothesis as to cause must be modified.

Thinking about where you might practice will be important. The nature and methods of forensic engineering will vary some. For example, the 256 blogs at www.ericjorden.com/blog give some indication of the nature and methods of forensic engineering investigation and expert services on the East Coast of Canada.

Soon, experience will present to you as important in forensic work. There are many engineers with basic degrees, no more – but lots of experience – that are well regarded in their field. There are also many highly regarded experts in the categories identified by SEAK, Inc. that have no university degrees at all – just lots and lots of experience.

Still, if you have an interest in forensic engineering, a basic degree won’t hurt. And it will enable you to earn a living while you get experience.

References

  1. The Engineer, Nova Scotia’s Source for Engineering News, Summer/Fall 2021
  2. McGraw Hill dictionary
  3. Super experts: Only in the U.S. of A., you say? Posted August 24, 2021
  4. Catling, Christopher and Bahn, Paul, The Complete Practical Encyclopedia of Archaeology, 2013 Hermes House, Leicestershire, UK info@anness.com (This looks like a good read for insight on engineering through the millennium, sans computers and construction equipment)

(Posted by Eric E. Jorden, M.Sc., P.Eng. Consulting Professional Engineer, Forensic Engineer, Geotechnology Ltd., Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada September 28, 2021 ejorden@eastlink.ca)   

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