A Faculty Internship

After spending time in academic administration, when I walk into the classroom next fall I’ll be teaching for the first time in eight years. A major goal of my current sabbatical is to prepare myself to once again be an effective teacher. To meet that goal, I am developing a number of new courses and reviewing best practices with respect to new pedagogical approaches. In addition, I am re-familiarizing myself with what my students—future geotechnical engineers—will experience when they start working. My own stories from working as an engineer, now more than 20 years in the past, are in need of updating.

In mid 1980’s I worked as a senior staff engineer at Woodward-Clyde Consultants, at that time one of the larger geotechnical and environmental engineering consulting firms. I spent time in the field investigating sites and doing construction inspection and in the office I developed designs for retaining walls, foundations, and underground supports. I also developed budgets, wrote proposals and reports, and provided research support for more senior engineers who were preparing to serve as expert witnesses. Because of this experience, when I started teaching in the early 1990’s I was able to bring first-hand experience with engineering practice into the classroom and I saw how sharing that experience engaged my students in the subject.

Over the last eight years, I haven’t completely disconnected from my disciplinary field but it has been difficult to do much more than to keep up with recent publications and to attend a professional meeting or two each year. During that time I also remained in touch with former students who provided me with updates on their own careers. In particular, I had regular contact with Marc Gallagher, a former student who is now a Senior Principal at Langan, a comprehensive engineering and environmental company with offices around the world. In addition to finding regular opportunities for him to share his experiences with students at Lafayette, during my time in the administration we talked about ways that I could stay connected with the practice of geotechnical engineering. As my sabbatical approached, we began discussing the possibility of a “faculty internship” — an experience with current engineering practice that would benefit both my future students and me.

Marc and I met at the start of my sabbatical to discuss the outcomes or goals for the internship and possible activities that would support those outcomes/goals. At the end of that first conversation we came up with the following outcomes/goals and activities:

Outcomes/Goals: At the end of the internship I would

  • be re-familiarized with consulting firm operations and how new engineering hires fit into those operations
  • have new stories of projects that I could share (removing client names and actual site locations) with students
  • have a list of modifications to consider for my teaching that would reflect industry needs

Planned activities: To meet these outcomes/goals I would

  • attend a Monday morning senior staff meeting
  • meet with project managers and discuss their professional histories, current projects, and thoughts regarding educational needs
  • meet with recent engineering hires and discuss their backgrounds, current work, and thoughts regarding educational needs
  • sit in on client meetings (both on the phone and in person)
  • visit at least one active project site
  • review engineering reports (both for completed projects and draft reports in progress)
  • attend a risk assessment committee meeting
  • attend a Friday morning staffing meeting

In December 2014, I traveled to New York City for my internship. My sabbatical finances are not infinite, so I chose to commute from home—a process that took nearly two hours, one way, door-to-door. The original plan was for a full week of visits, but the combination of wintry weather and the daily grind of commuting (my normal commute is no more than five minutes), trimmed the five days to four. However, with the exception of the visit to an active project site, I was able to complete all of the activities we had planned.

Perhaps what I was most struck by was how the activities I observed and heard about were so similar to my previous work experience. The site work, the process of writing and reviewing proposals and reports, and the importance of developing good relationships with clients, permitting agencies, and other professionals (e.g., architects, engineers, and contractors) are nearly unchanged. The methods used for communication and the programs used for engineering analysis have benefited from new technologies and design approaches but the basic work was fundamentally unchanged. The only notable exception was the greater focus on sustainability—driven perhaps by legal requirements—resulting in requirements for planning and accounting for “cradle to grave” issues related to excavated and fill materials on construction sites.

While I’ve learned that much of the practice remains basically unchanged, the experience has given me new stories about particular projects to share with my students and as a result of the internship, I am also planning on changing some of the content of my courses. Specifically, the internship reminded me of the need to introduce students to permitting processes and to discuss the importance of building good relationships with other professionals. Those elements of the practice were important 25 years ago, but as a young faculty member I focused much more on the technical content in the courses I developed. The technical content is important, but perhaps because of my experience as an administrator, I now have a greater appreciation for the importance of building and nurturing relationships across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

I believe that the importance of relationships can be brought to the classroom through more stories and discussions that encompass the full life span of a project. Often when a case study is presented in an engineering course it is presented to illustrate a particular element of the project (e.g., a particular type of analysis problem) and the story of the project before and after that element is conveyed briefly, if at all. For example, I have presented case studies involving the design of a temporary excavation support structure and have carefully described the existing soil and water conditions, the installation of the excavation support system, and basic performance characteristics of the structure (e.g., profiles of horizontal movements). However, I have left out of the story the permitting process and the conversations with adjacent landowners that had to be completed prior to construction, the complications that typically occur during the construction and operation of the structure as a result of being in an urban environment, and I have left out elements of what happens once the temporary support is no longer necessary.   There isn’t time to provide full stories for every case study that is used in a course, but if full stories are never provided, the students miss critical parts of the engineering process.

I also was reminded that it is important for an engineer to become familiar with the geology in the area of his/her practice and to have developed basic CAD and sketching skills sufficient to clearly communicate his/her observations to other engineers and clients. Finally, while I have always stressed the importance of writing skills in my courses and provide extensive feedback to students on their writing from both the legal and client perspectives, it may also be useful to give students the opportunity to read and edit the reports of practicing engineers.

In summary, I found my faculty internship to be a valuable experience and am currently working to find ways to continue the relationship in ways that will hopefully benefit, Langan, my students, and myself. This involvement is likely to include following more projects from “cradle to grave” and more regular review of engineering reports. The benefits of the internship make this experience something many faculty should consider.

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