Stephan Durham, associate professor in the College of Engineering, and his students discuss solutions to problems of urbanization, civil engineering innovations and engineering failures. They even build bridges out of spaghetti and glue!
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I received my B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. from the College of Engineering at the University of Arkansas. My B.S. degree is in civil engineering and my M.S. and Ph.D. are in civil engineering with a structural engineering emphasis. Currently, I am an associate professor in the College of Engineering. My teaching and research interests are in concrete materials, structural engineering and sustainability. I also am the program coordinator for the new civil engineering undergraduate degree program.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA from the University of Colorado-Denver in January 2012 to assist in the development of the new undergraduate degree program in civil engineering. To help develop a new civil engineering program from the ground up was an opportunity of a lifetime! On a personal side, it was a wonderful opportunity for my wife, Jenny, and me to raise our boys (Jackson, 7, and Parker, 4) in a great area such as Athens. The decision for us to move to UGA and Athens has been one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.
What are your favorite courses and why?
In general, I enjoy teaching any class. Being in a classroom full of students is an exciting experience. Specifically, I really enjoy teaching “Introduction to Civil Engineering.” This is the students’ first connection with the civil engineering program. We talk about solving problems of urbanization, civil engineering innovations and engineering failures, and we even build bridges out of spaghetti and glue. Seeing them connect with their degree program and become engaged is a rewarding experience. Another favorite class is “Civil Engineering Materials.” This is a very hands-on course in which students learn about common structural engineering materials. Students design, mix and test sustainable concrete mixtures and examine the behavior of steel and wood when subjected to loads. Students design and construct concrete Frisbees for a competition we have in class.
What interests you about your field?
What interests me the most about the field of civil engineering is the impact the profession has on humankind. Civil engineers impact many human needs (food, water, shelter) and the way we live and grow as a society. I think back to the moment I knew I wanted to be a civil engineer (at the age of 8). My father was a civil engineer who worked for the state transportation agency. We drove over a bridge, and I recall him saying, “This is one of the bridges I designed.” At that moment I knew I wanted to create something that benefited others. I only hope that our civil engineering students will see the impact they will have after graduation and in their professional careers.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
My greatest highlight at UGA is being part of the faculty (along with Sidney Thompson, Mi Geum Chorzepa, Brock Woodson and Siddharth Savadatti) who helped develop a new degree program and curriculum in civil engineering. We began the program in 2012 with 63 students. It has grown to 108 students in its second year, and I am excited to see it continue to grow. In the short time since the program began, we have been awarded a 2012 Outstanding University Award by the American Concrete Institute, instituted a student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers and connected numerous students with a variety of internships.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
I feel very strongly that teaching and research are forever integrated. You can’t have one without the other. Both teaching and research are learning experiences. I often discuss my research in the classes I teach to push students to think more critically about the way we design. I ask questions such as “how can we increase the performance of this material?” and “how can we make this material or design more sustainable?” This translates into deep thinking and problem solving by the students. In one course, students integrated waste-stream materials into their design of concrete mixtures as part of a course project. What I found was that student groups were spending late nights and weekends in the laboratory and going beyond the requirements of the project to “… make something better or make it more sustainable.”
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
The four major expectations I have for students leaving my classes are that they have the technical knowledge and the practical “know how” to solve engineering problems, the desire to continue learning after leaving my class, the ability to openly listen to others and their ideas, and an understanding of the importance of being kind and respectful of others. I firmly believe that if students leave my course having gained each of these, they are on a path for a successful professional career.
Describe your ideal student.
The most important characteristics of a quality student to me are discipline and a good work ethic. Students who possess these qualities are capable of tackling and solving complex problems. Students should be good communicators who are willing to listen to others, wiling to accept their mistakes and move on, and strive to be leaders of their group, company and profession.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
Whether in the classroom, my office or simply in the hallway, I enjoy talking with students about their experiences, a course project, something they saw related to what was discussed in class or helping them figure out what career path they want to choose. Ultimately, it is these conversations that I hope have as much impact on them as those that occur during class lectures. I also enjoy rooting on the Dawgs with my boys at the games!
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
Outside of school, I enjoy spending quality time with my wife and boys. Jackson and Parker have recently gotten into camping, fishing and hiking after our first camping trip this fall. I see many more camping trips in our future.
Community/civic involvement includes….
I’m hoping to connect UGA and the College of Engineering with Rocky Branch Elementary School in the Oconee School System in an effort to introduce engineering to more K-5 students. I also am looking to assist the school on its path to STEM school certification.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
My favorite book is “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. I am intrigued by phenomena that affect social behavior and what factors determine the success or failure of products, companies, organizations, etc.
My favorite movies are “The Bourne Trilogy.” These movies are full of action. I’m sure my liking of these movies has nothing to do with my desire to be a secret agent/spy.
Proudest moment at UGA?
My proudest moment was the first day of our “Introduction to Civil Engineering” class in the fall 2012 semester. This was the first class of civil engineering students at UGA since the 1930s, when the program was consolidated. I hope the students realized the significance of the moment as much as I did. What an exciting day!
(Originally published March 2, 2014)