Straight from the source, Part 2: What sources are your engineers relying on?

Another semester has started, and Purdue's engineering technology students are beginning to work on research projects. It's a good thing to get going on those projects now, as senioritis will soon set in!

One of the discussions I have with students involves asking how reliable is the information they find on the internet. Some think it’s OK, and others wonder why I’m asking – of course, they’ve all heard of fake news and suspect that it bleeds over to technical information.

When I was in school we had steam tables, steel shape dimensions, and other equations readily available in texts, and reference books such as Marks' Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers. These were costly, and as a great reference not readily available as a used book. Students today like them, but the price tag for an e-book is often prohibitive on a student budget. They would rather go on the internet, do a search, and use the information they find.

A couple of semesters ago, I debated with a couple of students about the reliability of that information. I challenged them to look for the same information in three different totally unrelated sources and do a comparison. They chose a couple of different topics and found differing information. One was looking for information on a heat cycle; another sought information on power plant efficiencies; and a third was looking for friction values for various piping materials. All seemed like simple queries to the students and they were surprised to see the variation in information they found. One of the students found two sources in agreement, but the third was off by 15%. In looking for another source supporting the data that differed, the student found yet another set of information that was off by another 5%. The question: “What do we do now?” I pulled up my trusty Marks' Handbook and we discussed how important it is that we as engineers use reliable information. It must come from a trusted source. I also suggested that libraries still have access to trusted sources.

A couple of those discussions moved into using Wikipedia. They wanted to know what I thought of that! Well, it’s an open-source publicly edited set of data. This an information haven that was not known or possible until we began relying on open-sourced platforms, online data sharing, etc. I also shared that a researcher leaves no stone unturned. We can look at Wikipedia, but we also need to look at the referenced sources that support that information/data. Triangulation to verify validity and reliability of the sources is then used to make sure the sources can be used.

We as engineers are often responsible for designing, modifying, and maintaining equipment that can affect a person’s life or survival. We must use reliable information in our designs and work. If we don’t, the results can become a disaster. Information reliability is of utmost importance, and we are responsible for using the best information to inform our work!