Geotechnical Engineering – Assignment 1

Why is my course important?  We’re asked to explain this “to” our students or “for” our students in our syllabus.  Not that I can’t do this, but should I?  Is explaining the “importance” of our class just another example of exerting power over our students, right from the beginning?

Maybe this is another question that we can help and encourage our students to explore for themselves.  I’m envisioning a syllabus and first assignment in an introduction to geotechnical engineering course (a junior-level class) that goes something like this.

Syllabus Intro:  Throw out half a dozen intriguing facts about soil mechanics that will pique the interests of these young civil engineers.  Try to touch on all the major branches of the discipline; cast the net large.  Brief entry-level papers could even be provided as background for the facts for students who want to explore further.  For example:

  • Did you know that expansive soils cause an estimated $13 billion damage to buildings in the US annually, more than the effects of hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes combined (Rendon-Herrero, 2011)?

Assignment #1:  Brainstorm and record the reasons why a knowledge of geotechnical engineering and soil mechanics will be important to you (aside from passing the FE exam).  Use the facts/questions in the beginning of the syllabus as a jumping off point, if necessary.  Also consider the following:

  • If you plan to concentrate in geotechnical engineering, explain why.  What attracts you to the field?  What makes you interested in it?
  • If not, how do you think that your concentration (structural, transportation, etc.) interacts with geotechnical engineers in practice?  How will the content of this course help you with those interactions?
  • Think of this assignment like a journal entry, not a paper.  It will be graded based on the thoughtfulness of the response, rather than the elegance of the prose or the conclusiveness of your argument.

I think an assignment along these lines could really help students think through the purpose of the class and semester before them.  It would be helpful to compile, distribute, and discuss the results with the class and share the student’s various insights with everyone.


Student choices in assignments

Been musing about student choices within assignments, specifically in my field of geotechnical engineering.  How to do this?

Consider an assignment calculating seepage below a dam or levee resting on layered soil, for example.  The designer must have values of permeability for each soil layer.  Rather than the more traditional approach in which students are given these parameters, why not give the students an abundance of test results for the soils and let them choose the parameters from the results as they would in practice.

The assignment would then be evaluated as follows:

  • Say 80% of grade is assigned based on the design analysis (the primary learning objective of the assignment).
  • The remaining 20% would be assessed based on HOW the parameters for the analysis were chosen (secondary objective).

Students would be allowed to use all, some, or none of the provided test results to determine the parameters for their analysis.  If few or none of the tests are used, the students must justify this and explain the judgment calls that they have made.  If more or all of the tests are used, the students will see that getting more technical data is “expensive,” and does not necessarily result in more accurate analyses.  This approach would “cost” the students more study hours just like it would cost their clients more in the future.