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The professor training courses for geosynthetics: 1994-1998

Features, News | October 7, 2009 | By:


Fifteen years ago, the Professor Training Course for Geosynthetics began training U.S. professors to teach geosynthetics at the university level. This paper reviews how the course was conceived, funded and run, and examines the results.


The Professor Training Course for Geosynthetics was the brainchild of Dr. Barry Christopher. Dr. Christopher recognized that education was the most efficient means of bringing geosynthetics into collegiate civil engineering education.

For years, geosynthetics was a poor stepchild in civil engineering curricula. Fifteen years later, the results are in: geosynthetics courses are now taught at about 60 universities, up from only six in 1994.

The course was designed as a jump start for professors preparing notes to teach geosynthetics as a new elective course or as part of a course already offered.


The sponsors were the National Science Foundation, the Industrial Fabrics Association International, the Geosynthetic Institute, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Erosion Control Technology Council, the International Erosion Control Association, the North American Geosynthetics Society, and the PVC Geomembrane Institute. All contributed financially and materially to the courses.

Course conduct

The courses were conducted during five summer sessions, 1994–1998, at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.

Each year, 25 professors were competitively selected. Attendees had only to arrange their travel to and from Auburn. Meals and housing, notes and handouts, were all provided, along with an umbrella. (Who knows about the umbrellas? But there they were. It rains in Alabama in the summertime!)

The professors also received Auburn University paperweights, pens, pencils, pads, and other memorabilia, reminding the attendees of the greatest college football team in the nation (or at least one of the most highly paid!).


The format of the Professor Training Course for Geosynthetics included lectures by well-known professors who reviewed extensive class notes prepared as handouts for the course.

The lectures covered polymers, manufacturing, erosion control, steepened slopes, landfills, mechanically stabilized backfill, pavement applications, embankments over soft ground, and filtration and drainage. Two thick notebooks (more than 1,000 pages) were produced.

Nontechnical information included exams, sources of information, manufacturer contacts, information on setting up a geosynthetics laboratory, and sample student evaluation forms.

An extensive homework file, with solutions, was provided, as well as reviews of textbooks. Handouts included papers, extra reading, design examples, course syllabus, pedagogical advice, laboratory advice, and experiments/demonstrations.

The concept of “modular notes” was used. The notes were broken into many stand-alone parts. This made it easier for a professor who couldn’t create an entire geosynthetics course to more easily integrate geosynthetics material into existing courses. For example, if the professor was teaching a course on dams, the modular notes on geosynthetic filters and drains could be incorporated seamlessly into the section on dam drains and filters.

Perhaps the most popular handout was the extensive slide set showing examples of geosynthetic applications. Videos and samples of virtually all geosyntheticmaterials were included. Conference proceedings and the ASTM geosynthetics standards rounded out the package.

Events and demonstrations

The courses were punctuated with special events. A demonstration model retaining wall was built in the parking lot (see Figure 1).

A tour of the Textile Engineering Department showed how geotextiles are created. Laboratory testing of geotextiles was a hands-on affair. (Each professor received a set of barbed needles used for needlepunching nonwoven geotextiles. However, the professors were not allowed to handle them personally, since faculty are not allowed to have sharp objects!)

At midweek, the professors attended a sponsor’s reception, where they met industry representatives. Some attendees may recall an evening at a local southern barbecue restaurant. (The first author has unauthorized pictures to remind those who do not remember anything from that evening!)


All told, about 125 participated during the five-year run of the geosynthetics courses.

The Professor Training Course for Geosynthetics attendees were evaluated each year. The statistics showed the substantial accomplishment of the course objectives for all five years.

The 1998 statistics are representative (Figure 2):

  • Pre-assessment of materials available to teach geosynthetics
  • Post-assessment of materials available to teach geosynthetics
  • Pre-confidence in teaching the use of geosynthetics
  • Post-confidence in teaching the use of geosynthetics
  • Pre-assessment of use of geosynthetics in existing courses
  • Post-assessment of use of geosynthetics in existing courses

Perhaps a better measure of course success was the notable increase in the number of geosynthetics courses offered at the university level. When the course was first proposed in 1991, six universities were offering stand-alone geosynthetic courses. By 2009, there were at least 60 courses offered throughout the U.S. It is expected that geosynthetics content in previously existing courses increased correspondingly.


The Professor Training Courses for Geosynthetics, originally envisioned by Dr. Christopher, was a benefit to the industry, the public, and the profession. The use of geosynthetic materials results in more cost-effective designs that benefit all three groups.

Alas, by 1999, funding, sponsors, and attendees were getting harder to arrange. The course was discontinued: (a) because we ran out of folks who wanted to take it, and (b) financial sponsors grew tired of funding it.

Perhaps it will experience a revival some day.

However, the Professor Training Course for Geosynthetics did spawn a camaraderie of course alums (who routinely get together at undisclosed locations to perform clandestine operations. Recently, the PTCG Alumni Association gave a lifetime achievement award to Richard Cheney for creative use of geotextiles in waterboarding exercises!)

David J. Elton, Ph.D., P.E., is the current president of the North American Geosynthetics Society and a professor of civilengineering at Auburn University.

David M. Shannon, Ph.D. , is the Humana-Germany-Sherman Distinguished Professor in the Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology at Auburn University.

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