Sidney Thompson, the U.H. Davenport Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, helps students learn how to think like engineers and to become confident in their ability to solve problems.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned my undergraduate degree in civil engineering from Kansas State University, my master’s degree from Purdue University and my Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky. My undergraduate and master’s degrees were in civil engineering, and my Ph. D. was in agricultural engineering. I am currently the U.H. Davenport Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering and chair of the School of Environmental, Civil, Agricultural and Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering. I teach courses in structural engineering and have primarily done research in the storage of particulate materials.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA in November of 1980. I came to UGA because that faculty position was going to involve teaching and research. At that time I knew very little about the southeastern United States, having grown up in the Midwest.
What are your favorite courses and why?
I have taught mechanics of materials and structural design courses since I first started teaching at UGA. These courses are to me the basics of engineering, and they relate closest to my training in school. For many years, I also team taught “Introduction to Design” with Dr. Tim Foutz. In this course we challenged our students to learn design concepts and then use these concepts in building a project of some sort. It was always “interesting” to see what our students came up with based upon our problem statement. Sometimes interesting meant good, other times not so good.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
I have been lucky enough to have won awards for both my teaching and advising over the years. Those were very special because often students voted on these awards. I have been very lucky to also have worked with many different talented faculty members at UGA and other universities over my career. Over the last 10 years or more I have been part of a team that has worked with the teachers in Jackson County on the teaching of STEM topics. That has been a great experience for me. Some of my research on particulate materials is the basis for three different engineering standards, which also has given me great pride. I also enjoy when our engineering alumni come back and talk about their careers and what they are doing on the job.
How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?
I most often tell them that I do teaching and research in engineering at UGA. I believe my impact has been primarily on training of UGA students to become engineers.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
I think my research and scholarship build on each other. I think that my teaching provides me with a much deeper understanding of engineering topics. You really learn a topic when you are asked to teach it and then answer questions about it from your students. I have done both engineering research and consulting over the years, and this has provided me with real-life examples that I can bring back to my students and talk about in class. I think these types of examples enrich the classroom experience and provide students with the real reason why engineers need to function the way they do.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I would hope that they gain knowledge about engineering and the topics I teach. But in many cases the only times some of my students will ever solve a problem involving mechanics of materials will be in my classroom. So that really is only a small part of what I hope they get out of my class. I hope that they learn how to think like an engineer and become much more confident in their abilities to solve problems. While engineers have to be technically sound, they also need to be problem solvers. No matter what sort of job they eventually take after graduation, they will be required to solve problems.
Describe your ideal student.
I want someone who is interested in being in class and I wants to be an engineer and work to the best of their ability. My ideal student does not have to be an “A” student; many students who have been “C” students are very successful engineers. My students would probably tell you that I like students who like to get up early in the morning, since I always teach first period classes, but in response to that I always tell them “the world starts at 8 a.m.”
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
I have spent a lot of afternoons and evenings watching football and basketball in the stadium and in the coliseum over these many years. But most of my time has been spent in the Driftmier Engineering Center. That might not be a favorite place for many on this campus, but it has been my campus home for many years.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
Watch sports and do things around the house. I always seem to have some project that my wife and I are doing around our house. Like most homeowners, there always seems to be a project or two that needs to get done.
Community/civic involvement includes….
I have been involved as a spectator and at even at times as a youth coach in many different athletic activities around town. My children actively participated in swimming, basketball and especially soccer when they were growing up. So my wife and I spent a lot of time traveling around the state of Georgia going to athletic events. I myself was very active in the State Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers and had the honor of being president of the State Section of ASCE in 1999.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
I enjoy books by Lee Child and John Grisham I guess because they are so different from anything I do on my job. Both of those authors are “fun reads” for me. I don’t know that I have one favorite movie. I watch “Raiders of the Lost Ark” just about every time it comes on TV because of the entertainment value. I enjoy many different types of movies. I will admit that zombie movies are not on my radar screen.
The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…
I don’t know that I have one experience. I could say when my daughter graduated with her degree in food science or when I was given an award for teaching or advising, but I think one of my happiest experiences is seeing my students at graduation and getting to talk to their parents. I enjoy hearing them talk about what they are planning to do after graduation and how great the UGA Engineering experience was for them.