Appreciating the middle ages

The Environmental lab never looked so colorful and full of laughs and energy as it did on Wed, Aug 3, 2016. ms1Fourteen middle schoolers, participating in NU’s Girls Inventors Camp spent the morning with me learning to build water filters. They came from a few different towns near Northfield and scaled from sixth through ninth grades. Their personalities were just as diverse as the many physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of water that we discussed.

ms2With a limited amount of gravel, sand, activated carbon, and geotextile fabric, their challenge was to design and build a filter to treat some “gross”, “yucky”, “stinky”, “swamp water” (tap water with some garden soil, leaves and twigs, with a tiny drop of red food coloring) to almost clear quality, at a flow rate of about 0.56 ml/s (they had to collect 100 ml of filtered water in three minutes or less). ms4To do this, they had to first develop their concept sketches. These turned out so colorful, with appropriate headings, legend, and everything labeled using the correct terminology! ms3They then decided on the amount of media they would use in the order these design depicted, put on some gloves and got building. Every team met the flow rate challenge, but almost everyone had a pink tinge still left over in their filtered water. They knew that activated carbon was the primary component that could fix this color issue, so…

Every team had the opportunity to re-design their filters.ms5



They had to develop a new concept sketch, and note what changes were made and why. These second filtered samples turned out less pink than the previous, but now there was a serious commitment to get the color out. There were several creative solutions that emerged. Run the filtered water through the filter 13 ms8times, repeat layers of activated carbon in the filter, leave the filtered water in a separate beaker of activated carbon for a while, fill the entire filter casing with as much media as possible, so even though flow rate suffered in some cases, the final effluent looked ms7a LOT less pink – almost clear!

We had a lot of discussions along the way – the challenges of today, how they are already changing the world now, and how they will in 10 years, where does our water come from, why should we care, what do engineers do…We talked about using the right terminology to explain our work, learnt that it is ok to be nervous when presenting in front of an audience, and practiced our power poses.

Finally, we built a crude sand and gravel filter in a plastic cup and walked with these and a water sampler down to the Dog River across the rugby field on campus, stood on the bridge, watched fish swim by, collected some water, ran it through our make shift filters and walked back. The sun was hot, everyone was hungry and sweaty, but in my books – it was a morning well spent. I hope the girls felt the same way. I hope I see some of them in my classroom one day…

Photo credit: Mark Collier, Norwich Photography



A packed summer

The life of an academic is unique in that it is more a way of life than a profession. In practically every trip I was on this summer, and this was my summer of a LOT of travel, especially road trips across familiar and unfamiliar parts of the country, and there wasn’t a place where I did not find a connection with something I teach, something my students would love, something I could research, something I could write about. I believe that this just makes the experience that much richer.propeller

At the Albacore museum, I had to take close-ups of the submarine propellers to share in my Fluids class, at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln’s Science Museum, I snapped a lot of pictures of their rock collections, because I loved how they had organized their collection – perfect for my Hydrogeology course, the Omaha Children’s Museum had a detailed model of a reverse osmosis water treatment system – just right for the water and wastewater treatment


Finally, there was almost a continuous stream of ideas for my environmental engineering course – from the Colorado State Capitol – the first LEED certified Capitol in the country to the naturally carbonated mineral spring waters of Manitou Springs to faulty water meters that allowed the famous Wall Drug Store in South Dakota to receive five years of free water (worth almost $9, 000), to looking at algae blooms across several water bodies along the coast of Maine.

co_capitolEven my first real touristy trip to Montreal, complete with the hop on hop off experience was heightened whenthe tour guide mentioned that much of the green space in the city had been designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead, the same landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City and who was the subject of a research paper of a student in my Honors class on Sustainability last spring.

All geekiness aside, the two biggest highlights for me were getting to hang out with family and being able to revisit Acadia National Park, which is starting to become one of my most favorite places. acadia


I’m an ExCEEd mentor!

I will be forever indebted to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE’s) Excellence in Civil Engineering Education (ExCEEd) workshops. These are designed to help new Civil engineering faculty become better at a craft that few of us are trained for – teaching engineering. We earn our PhDs and become subject matter experts, but very few of us really learn how to teach. ExCEEd changed that for me.

As a participant in the summer of 2013, I was introduced to a model instructional strategy and provided ample guidance and tools on applying it. I was mesmerized by demonstration classes taught by master teachers who transformed both the classroom as well as the topic of Statics that they were teaching before my eyes. No topic was too small (how to write on a chalkboard/whiteboard) or too big (you can create drama as well as use models and demonstrations to explain engineering concepts and principles) for these instructors and mentors.

Best of all, my own mentor Dr. Brock Barry of USMA and assistant mentor Dr. Pinar Omur-Ozbek helped each person in our small team develop our practice classes, videotaped us teaching these classes, provided the most comprehensive feedback any of us had ever received on our teaching and helped us all improve and become better teachers. In the past two years, I returned to ExCEEd as an assistant mentor and continued learning from the legends of ExCEEd, I was assigned to work with.

Then this year I was assigned to be a mentor. What an incredible experience that was! I am so grateful to everyone at ASCE who believed I could do this, but am even more grateful that my team believed in me. They took up every challenge, my assistant mentor Brett Tempest and I threw at them, set aside their personal lives, and work lives, and worked so hard to apply the ExCEEd model in their three practice classes. They tossed out PowerPoint and engaged their class with questions, models, activities, and added music, drama and props and truly transformed their classrooms across their three classes. One of them even threw me a challenge, which I’m happy to say I took up, thus continuing with my own learning as well.


Two more exciting highlights of this particular ExCEEd had to do with the fact that I got to spend the whole week at West Point with beautiful views of the Hudson and got to meet and spend some time with ASCE’s President Elect, Norma Jean Mattei.

exceed1Bottom line: I love teaching even more. I love knowing that I am doing what I love doing. Teaching. Researching, and weaving it back into my teaching.


Summer 2016 begins with a splash!

On May 20-21, Norwich co-hosted the first Resilient Vermont Conference with the Institute of Sustainable Communities (ISC). This event brought a lot of people across the state, involved in climate related work to campus. tk_rvtconference1

The story about the event itself is elsewhere, but this reflection is about the fact that I learnt at least as much, as a part of the organizing team, as I did from the conference itself.

They were completely different kinds of lessons, but truly the kinds of things I hope I emphasize enough in my classes, especially as stud052016-resilient-vermont-190ents engage in service-learning projects and work with community members on Capstone projects.

These lessons involved communication – first and foremost – in all its forms, written, verbal, and sometimes non-verbal. It involved planning and coordination, often times going back to the drawing board, because an option could not or would not work. It meant switching back and forth between the leader and follower models, depending on the situation, because decision-making is complex and requires flexibility.

Most importantly, I so greatly appreciated who I can only call “my people” here on campus. As the person representing Norwich on the planning committee, I often had to reach out to folks here, many of whom I had never met before and request items, space, arrangements, and favors and they all came through. Every single one of them, every single time.

Photo credit: Mark Collier, Norwich Photography