Posted in Academic Issues

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga-Lee University Articulation Agreement

It finally happened:

This ceremony took place last month at UTC.  I was the “matchmaker” for the agreement; after UTC signed a similar agreement with Covenant College, I thought “why not Lee?”  Being well embedded and known in the Church of God (and my wife a Lee graduate,) I reached out to Dr. Debbie Murray, Lee’s Vice President for Academic Affairs.  Her response and that of from Dr. Paul Conn, Lee’s President, was positive. Then I approached UTC’s Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, Dr. Daniel Pack, and he was receptive.  The rest, as they say, is history.

An articulation agreement like this specifies that the students spends three years at Lee and two at UTC, obtaining an engineering degree at the end.  Making this available is a step forward for both institutions.  Additionally Lee students won’t have to make a major move (if any) to complete their degree, since the two institutions are about 30 miles apart.

This has been one of the most gratifying things I have been involved with both in my years in the Church of God and at UTC.

I have had deep reservations about the frequently uncritical way data is used to “advance” science, and now I see I’m not the only one.  I think our better way is to develop our understanding of the phenomena around us and use that for predictive methods rather than just extrapolating data, with all of the biases and inherent danger in extrapolation of any kind that follows.

Some people seem to think that if you have a problem or an issue, all you need to do is to collect enough information about it, and that will tell you the answer. Robert McNamara has provided a stark counter-example. As well as being the Secretary of Defence during the Cuban missile crisis and president […]

via Collecting the wrong information — The Logical Place

Collecting the wrong information — The Logical Place

Posted in Academic Issues

Keep Going Against the Obstacles

In my teaching at UTC, one of the people I’d see in the hallway was Chris Land.  He’d always speak to me and I to him.  This past weekend he walked for his Mechanical Engineering degree:

He’s one of those people who makes teaching worthwhile, even in the midst of its frustrations.  He helps to keep us going.

Posted in Academic Issues

My Rimsky-Korsakov Moment in Academia

In 1871, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov became a Professor of Practical Composition and Instrumentation at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  In retrospect, given the music he composed, this is not extraordinary.  At the time, however, it was amazing.  He was still in active service in the Russian Navy.  More importantly, although he had had private music lessons and was very active with the “Five” (the group of Russian composers which gave Russian music its distinctive character,) he had never had any conservatory training!  He worked hard to make up for this, and in doing so departed from the rest of the “Five” in making conservatory training part of being a Russian composer.

Russia is a very specific country; many strange things happen there and wherever Russians go.   But maybe not as strange as we think: although I would never put myself in the rank of Rimsky-Korsakov in my own field, starting today I am a Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  For those of you who have followed this site for a long time, this will seem quite odd, especially considering that one of the centrepieces of this site is the geotechnical courses that I have taught for nearly twenty years.  My friend Jean-Louis Briaud, now President of the American Society of Civil Engineers, tried to encourage me with the fact that George Goble, who developed many of the tools we use in pile dynamics, started out as a mechanical engineer.  But in reality some explanation is in order.

My entry into this field was through the equipment route, specifically the Vulcan Iron Works.  That occasioned my first degree to be in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M University.  Impact (and later vibratory) pile driving equipment is an unusual type of equipment to design and build.  Basically it involves having a ram accelerate downwards due to gravity (with or without downward assist,) do this 30-120 times a minute, and stopped each time by deceleration which can be in the range of 150 g’s.  This eliminates many common solution techniques used for mechanical design problems.  Injected into an environment where service is frequently delayed and breakdown ruinous,  it makes for many exciting moments in business.


The equipment, however, interacts with the pile which it is driving and the soil into which the pile is driven.  Understanding this is really important in the proper design of the equipment.  That realization came slowly but surely.  By the time my family’s time at Vulcan was coming to an end, I was in graduate school, which ultimately resulted in a MS Degree in Civil Engineering.  Before and during that time I presented several conference papers.  But by the time I received my degree, my future in the deep foundations industry was uncertain.

Although I had other activities in the following years, that uncertainty was ended by three events. The first was starting this website; to make an educational resource like this you have to have some understanding of what you’re disseminating. The second was my involvement with Pile Buck and the compilation of two books: Sheet Pile Design by Pile Buck and Pile Driving by Pile Buck.  The third was my teaching at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  When my MS thesis committee chairman retired, I taught Soil Mechanics and Foundations for one academic year (2001-2) thanks to another committee member, Dr. Edwin P. Foster, the Civil Engineering department head, who evidently thought enough of my abilities to bring me on.

The University had other ideas; due to some complex budgetary issues, they could not see their way clear to have me teach these courses as an adjunct for most of the last decade.  It was not until 2009 that Ed Foster’s retirement and the concurrence of the current department head, Joseph Owino, meant that I was able to teach geotechnical courses at UTC on a consistent basis, something I have done ever since.

Dissertation Presentation_Page_01

Force Waves in PileIn 2011 I started my PhD in Computational Engineering, which is yet another engineering discipline.  But both advanced degrees had one thing in common: they concerned pile dynamics, and that brings us to the marriage of mechanical and geotechnical engineering.  It’s worth noting that E.A.L. Smith was Raymond’s Chief Mechanical Engineer, before George Goble came on the scene.  Pile dynamics in any form involves things moving and moving fast, and civil engineers in general don’t find this very congenial.  It’s an interdisciplinary field, one where mechanical engineers–and even equipment people–can make serious contributions.

Upon completing my PhD in 2016, my first new teaching assignment was the Fluid Mechanics Laboratory.  This came as a shock to some, but things have worked out, and in any case an understanding of fluid mechanics is essential to geotechnical and mechanical engineer alike.  But ultimately, as so many things are in academia, the full-time appointment (which many have pestered me about since I got my PhD) came from the Mechanical Engineering department due to internal considerations of the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

In going through all of this there’s one trend to be noted that also ties this into Rimsky-Korsakov’s story: the growth of the importance of formal education in the construction industry.  In his case his conservatory experience didn’t endear him to some of his compositional colleagues, who were worried that European “formalism” would spoil the result.  When I came into the family business in the late 1970’s many of our customers had little if any formal education beyond high school.  Like some of the “Five” they accomplished great things.  Today however the educational level of the construction industry–offshore and onshore alike–has risen, and has changed the nature of customer relations in a positive way.

Unlike many I’m not the first in my family to go to college.  However, my people didn’t have a problem starting college: it was finishing it that was another story.  When I completed my first degree is was the first completion in my family in sixty four years!  The MS and PhD were without precedent, at least on my father’s side.  While I am a strong believer that we build on what has gone before, we need to go beyond that, and an education is a way of achieving that result.

I am grateful for UTC’s confidence in me and in particular that of the department head (and my PhD advisor) James C. Newman, III.  My teaching geotechnical courses will continue, as will my contributions to this site.  Stay tuned.


Posted in Academic Issues

Advice to Graduates: Past Performance is Not a Guarantee of Future Returns

It’s the time of the year when most people graduate from whatever school they’re graduating from.  This is a hypothetical graduation address, aimed a college students.

These days college–especially undergraduate studies–is a long, expensive undertaking, usually accomplished by a large amount of debt.  (Come to think of it, what in our society is accomplished without a large amount of debt?)  And yet, in spite of the long-term obligations that come with it, people continue to put a great deal of stock and effort in a college education.  Why is this?  Most of you know the answer: because jobs and careers opened up by a college education have a higher level of compensation than those that don’t, at least overall.  College seen in this way is an investment, and I’ll come back to the financial analogy.

One thing I’ve noticed while walking the halls of Old Kudzu (“Old Ivy” is more appropriate for places Up North which are not appropriate to speak about here) is the “first in family” thing about college.  There’s a great deal of emphasis on those people who have broken the multigenerational custom of living and dying for a college athletic program without having stepped foot on campus except to head to the football stadium.  As you would expect, an elitist snob like me doesn’t have that experience.  I come from a long line of “college men” whose main problem wasn’t going to college: it was getting to the place you’re at today, i.e., graduating.  Today that’s another obsession of our educational system.  We’re told that our graduation rates are too low, with the implication that those who don’t walk the stage don’t walk the golden path of success in life.  But somehow my ancestors were successful in spite of that fact.

One that actually did make it to the end was my grandfather, Chester H. “Chet” Warrington, who graduated–after giving his parents much heartburn–from Lehigh in 1912. He’s there on the right, before he actually made it through.

Even though he graduated from the birthplace of Tau Beta Pi, engineering’s highest honour fraternity, he wasn’t much of a scholar.  There have been many changes in the whole meaning of a university education from his day to ours, and one of them is how much more competitive our system–in and out of academia–has become.  In those days college was largely the province of the well-heeled, and the “Gentlemen’s C” was not a dishonourable result.  (I would say that the “Gentlemen’s C” is still very much alive and well on campus today, in spite of the changes!)

But we, as we do with just about everything, have pushed the whole business of academic achievement to the limit.  It’s surely frustrating to most academics that people who aren’t very good students actually have a successful life in this world, as my grandfather had.  It’s even more frustrating that, after all of the glow people put around academia, the money goes elsewhere.  So we’ve had a drumbeat, of late, of how important it is for people to have very high grades, and to correlate (at least in our minds) those high grades with success in life, and ultimately to try to rig the system so that those who do well in an academic setting will be afforded similar success afterwards.

But life neither starts or ends on campus.  And sometimes the reality of life wedges its way onto campus.  A good example of that happened in one of my classes last year, and the life lesson it taught bears repeating.

One of the courses I teach is Foundations.  First question some ask is “Foundations of What?” There are many “foundations” courses on campus to introduce students to a wide variety of subjects, but mine is the Foundations course par excellence: it concerns the design of foundations for real structures such buildings, bridges and the like.  This past year my students convinced me, for their design project, to enter the American Society of Civil Engineers MSE wall contest.  An “MSE” wall, for the uninitiate, is a Mechanically Stabilised Earth wall.  If you’ve driven down the interstate and seen newer walls flanking the roadway, usually with fancy decorations, you’ve probably seen an MSE wall.  The fancy decorations, however, have nothing to do with that: behind the front of an MSE wall is a network of grids and meshes by which the earth behind the wall actually helps to hold it up rather than just trying to push it down.

In this competition, the students build a large wooden box with a removable face.  They then put an MSE wall entirely built of kraft paper and tape behind it and fill the box with sand.  Removing the face, the moment of truth comes when the wall either holds the sand in place, leaks a great deal of sand, or collapses with sand on the floor following.

The class divides itself into two teams, using an electronic sign-up system.  When the team compositions were finalised, the “buzz” around the class was that one team was made up of the “smart” people and the other wasn’t.  I was unconvinced that it was that rigged; years in the private sector and engineering practice gave me the gut feeling that the outcome would not follow the conventional wisdom.

It didn’t.  When the removable panel was in fact removed, both walls held, but the “smart” team had the scarier moment as their wall bulged and leaked considerably.  Conventional wisdom took another hit.  But the whole point of an educational system is to learn something, and there’s a good lesson here.

There’s a great deal of emphasis on the value of intelligence these days.  It’s almost an obsession, really, and permeates our whole system, from child rearing to the educational system itself and ultimately to the credentialling system that marks the road to the top.  Raw intelligence, however, is only one piece of the puzzle.  That intelligence has to be properly applied to achieve the best results, and that application includes two things: an understanding of the environment in which you’re operating and the willingness to put the effort in to attain the goal.  Those two elements are frequently lacking, and I speak from experience: the lack of those two elements have led to many of the mistakes I have made in life.  Although there’s a great deal of talk about including “real life experiences” in an academic course, to be honest time constraints and the same lack of understanding in academics lead many such efforts to fall flat.

Even with the political clout that our financial system has these days, it’s still necessary for those selling financial products to make this disclaimer (or one like it): “Past Performance is Not a Guarantee of Future Returns”.  I think that should be placed somewhere, or at least watermarked, on every diploma issued by institutions of higher education.  Those of you who have finished the course of study can be justifiably proud of what you have done.  But you and the society you live and move and have your being in need to understand that what you’ve done isn’t a guarantee that what you do subsequently will have the golden touch.  The society that believes that and promotes accordingly is itself heading for a fall.  It was the hard lesson that Ch’ing Dynasty China found out the hard way the century before last; we will follow suit if we do likewise, our fall being at the hand of the same Chinese (with others) who did learn the lesson.

Graduation is a time of celebration, but, as the Latin root notes, it’s just another step in life.  The education doesn’t stop here, and by that I don’t mean the continuing education requirements that permeate our professional credentials.  Making the education work is the new task, and in many ways it’s as important–if not more important–than the first.