Instructor: Jenny Retherford
Authored by Sarah Guy, AmeriCorps VISTA
“Civil engineering is by definition a service profession.” That’s why it’s so important to Jenny Retherford that her students engage with course content both inside and outside the classroom.
Students taking Retherford’s senior design course, CE400, learn about the basics of the civil engineering design process: problem formulations, site planning, managing projects, schematic design and development, and more, just as they would in any introductory design course. However, Retherford takes this already multidisciplinary subject matter further: she asks students to engage with the role that civil engineering plays in creating solutions to meet the unique needs of a community. These needs are more than infrastructural; they have to do with the quality of life for residents, the needs and desires they have for their own community to grow and change in positive ways. “Students gain opportunities to interact with community leaders and [are] able to develop interpersonal skills for engineer-client communication,” explains Retherford.
During the semester, students work with community partners such as Plan East Tennessee (Plan ET), a regional, 5 county partnership dedicated to finding long-term solutions to area challenges such as jobs, housing, transportation, environment, and health. While this may sound like a partnership better suited for aspiring economists, social workers, and physicians, civil engineers most definitely have a place at the table. Students in Retherford’s course “propose engineering design solutions that could be implemented by local communities to improve development and quality of life for residents.” In this way, students are applying their technical, classroom knowledge to problems that are “actual, local.” Furthermore, they are being exposed to projects that “incorporate significant feedback from the community.” Students attend meetings with advisory boards, community leaders, and public hearings, along with participating in formal faculty reviews, surveys, and feedback meetings, which inform their continued course work and ensure that projects align with the partner’s identified goals and outcomes.
Retherford feels that by integrating a service component into her course, her students are not only becoming better, more skilled engineers, but also more well-rounded citizens. “The opportunity for a civil engineering student to perform design work that is necessary to improvement of a community is extremely valuable with respect to their technical development as well as their ethical and civil servant awareness,” she says. She also finds that students are “highly motivated when true stakeholders are involved.” As students engage with these real-world projects they are able to realize their professional potential and experience a scaled-down version of the transition they will soon be making from engineering student to professional engineer.
“The reality of these projects, experienced in their final semester before graduation is stressful, blissful, frustrating, intense, challenging, but above all, unforgettable.” Through her course, Retherford hopes to deliver an exciting glimpse into the future for her students, while still providing knowledge and practice in the practical and fundamental principles of the field.