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New initiatives to promote geosynthetics education in civil engineering curricula

News | February 1, 2016 | By: ,

The North American Geosynthetics Society (NAGS) is currently helping to re-establish the “Educate the Educators” (EtE) program. With the support of the Geosynthetic Materials Association (GMA) and sponsors such as the Geosynthetic Institute (GSI), IGS–NA developed a two-day event where experts in the geosynthetics field introduced 40 college professors to various geosynthetic materials and their applications.

The July 2015 EtE program provided the college instructors with the knowledge and tools necessary to improve in their ability to teach geosynthetics technology and associated geosynthetic materials. However, 40 college professors represent less than 7% of all civil engineering programs within the United States. If we consider that geosynthetic technology has applications beyond civil engineering (e.g., coastal engineering and environmental engineering), IGS–NA and other interested parties must search for additional means of influencing a majority of engineering curricula to include geosynthetic technology within their coursework. We should ask: What factors influence the objectives and content of an engineering curriculum? Perhaps we can then identify the following influences including, but not limited to:

  • local or state areas of interest (e.g., water resources, coastal protection, landslides, etc.).
  • specialization or expertise of the college professors.
  • employers of their students from local industry, consulting firms, municipalities, regulatory agencies, etc.
  • ability for their students to obtain a professional engineering license.

It is the last item that is also the current focus of NAGS. To obtain a professional engineering license, the student must graduate from an Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) institution and pass two exams: (1) the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam and (2) the Principals and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam. These exams are developed and administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). The FE exam tests the student’s knowledge in math, sciences, engineering sciences (e.g., mechanics of materials), and engineering fundamentals (e.g., slope failure along planar slip surface). The PE exam tests the knowledge of more specialized engineering fundamentals (e.g., boring logs interpretation) and design applications (e.g., retaining wall design).

One of the methods engineering colleges use to assess the quality of their engineering programs is to evaluate their students’ FE exam results. NCEES publishes reference handbooks that note the topic areas, methods, and equations, that may be covered in the exams. Instructors are required to review these handbooks and make sure these topic areas, methods, and equations are covered within the courses they teach.

Although these handbooks and exams are revised by NCEES about every six years, they woefully lack the inclusion of geosynthetics technology. For example, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Subtitle D regulations issued in 1994, landfills are required to have a composite liner system. The environmental portion of the FE exam requires the calculation of “Breakthrough time for leachate to penetrate a clay liner.” Since 1994, and even earlier, the leakage rate through a liner system has been the primary method of evaluating liner system performance, not breakthrough time.

Exam questions are developed by volunteers within several NCEES committees (i.e., FE exam, PE exam for civil engineers, etc.). NCEES uses various references and resources to develop and support these questions. For example:

  • What is being taught within the engineering curriculum?
  • Is this subject matter included in current textbooks?

To promote inclusion of geosynthetic technology within engineering curriculum, IGS–NA needs to approach this issue with several efforts by interested parties. These efforts include, but are not be limited to:

  • Several volunteers should join various NCEES committees to assist in the writing of exam questions. The subject areas of the FE exam questions are those topics that relate to geosynthetic materials and technologies (e.g., material science). The subject areas of the PE exam questions are those topics that relate to the designs that require geosynthetic materials and technologies (e.g., slope reinforcement).
  • Volunteers should discover what textbooks are being used by engineering colleges for their curricula. These textbooks must be reviewed, with recommendations for including geosynthetic technologies.
  • Authors of the textbooks should be approached to determine if they are receptive to updating their textbooks to include geosynthetic technologies. If needed, volunteers from the geosynthetic community could develop the necessary text, calculations, and reference documents for the authors to use within the updated textbooks.

The efforts described above to include geosynthetic technology within engineering coursework, via NCEES exams, will require numerous volunteers and perhaps years to accomplish. The implementation of an annual EtE program event has the ability to directly and immediately impact a portion of engineering colleges, and to allow the number of colleges teaching geosynthetic technology to grow over time. Revising the NCEES exams to include geosynthetic technology may take several years to accomplish, but it offers the potential of affecting almost every engineering college.

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