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Civil Engineering Overview

Chris A. Bell,
Ph.D., P.E.
Associate Dean
Oregon State University
Corvallis, OR

 

B.S., Civil Engineering, University of Nottingham, UK
Ph.D., University of Nottingham, UK
As an Associate Dean of an engineering college with more than 2,500 students and faculty conducting research contracts in excess of $12 million per year, I am involved in a broad range of activities involving the "business" of educating engineers.
"Be completely open-minded about the directions your career might take. Set realistic short and long-term goals, but be prepared to change because we live in an ever changing world."


Bell: "Engineering is constantly changing, and students need to stay ahead of what's going on. And universities and organizations are going to be providing more and more continuing education opportunities through conferences, through workshops, and so on. And everybody needs to be involved in that to keep on top of their profession."

Bell: "We try to work in a lot of group settings now with the students, and on project-related activities so that they're involved in working together and maybe even working with people in different disciplines occasionally. It's very like the real world. We also encourage the students to get involved in internships, and do our best to help them establish internships during the Summer. Because we know the industry needs students that have experienced the workplace, and have done things in the workplace that are relevant to when they graduate and get out there as practicing engineers."

Bell: "I didn't think about staying in academia at first. I enjoyed the research aspect of the senior project, but I went to work for a local government agency immediately after graduation. And about nine months into that I got an offer to do a PhD at the school where I did my bachelors degree, the University of Nottingham. I jumped at the opportunity. It was with a professor I had a lot of regard for, and they actually offered me quite good money to go back to school."

Bell: "I don't think the need for global outreach is overstated at all. I think it's very important that we learn to understand how international people are not the same as we are. They have different perspectives -- very valuable perspectives -- that we can work better together than we could individually."


Q: Why don't we start with your background? Can you give us a little hint at how you started getting involved in civil engineering?
Bell:
Well, as with many things in my life it was accidental. I was advised by a high school teacher that engineering was probably what I was best suited for, so I applied to the university to do civil engineering, not really having much idea what civil engineering was all about

Q: And what do you think your motivation was to go into civil as opposed to some other sort?
Bell:
I think I was more hands on and more people oriented than most engineers would be, and civil engineering at that time I saw as being a people-oriented engineering discipline. I believe I was right. That certainly is the case.

Q: How about your course load in undergraduate?
Bell:
Well, the university system in the UK when I went through it -- I graduated twenty-five years ago -- was less time-intensive then school tends to be here. We had less contact hours in the classroom but more expectation that we would work more intensively by ourselves and with other students. So it was pretty hard work, but very different to school here.

Q: And what were the next steps? Were you thinking about staying in academia?
Bell:
I didn't think about staying in academia at first. I enjoyed the research aspect of the senior project, but I went to work for a local government agency immediately after graduation. And about nine months into that I got an offer of going back to do a PhD at the school where I did my bachelors degree, the University of Nottingham. I jumped at that opportunity. It was with a professor I had a lot of regard for, and they actually offered me quite good money to go back to school. It was at a salary level similar to an assistant professor, so that was very tempting, and I went back and ended up on the academic track.

Q: What were some of the factors that led you to choose your specialty as opposed to others?
Bell:
I started in transportation materials. It was really materials rather than transportation, although I liked transportation and planning as well. And it was just an opportunity that was presented to me as a way of financing a research project and a PhD with a professor that I had enjoyed working with before. So I had enjoyed working in the lab setting, testing materials, making samples, doing all the data evaluation, those sorts of things. And that was what the PhD program was all about. In the U.K. PhD's don't involve course work. They're three years of research, so I was faced with a three-year research program, which really appealed to me, something to really get your teeth into in a research setting. What I was going to do was very practically oriented, and it was to do with road surfacing materials. And I knew there would be an impact of the research work. Interestingly enough, the project was sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. So it was sponsored by their European Research Office, and there was a connection there with the U.S. which I was interested in. Most of the significant research in my area was being done in the U.S., and I enjoyed that linkage.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what your responsibilities are, and what you actually do while you're here?
Bell:
When I first came here as an assistant professor I had a fairly typical career path where I started out doing a lot of teaching, but trying to establish some research projects, funded research projects. And dealing with students, writing papers. And doing service-related work. I was fortunate that I had a senior colleague that worked with me as a mentor, and really brought me along through the academic path, and helped out significantly with guidance. And from a good start, went through the tenure track process and became tenured as an associate professor. Did more research, less teaching, but at that time took on the faculty advisor role for ASCE, which I've now been doing for eight years. Which is a little longer than is usually advised because sometimes one gets a little bit stale doing those kinds of roles, but I've enjoyed it tremendously. And this kept me in very strong contact with students while my teaching activities have diminished a little bit as research has taken on more of a role in my career. Now I spend about fifty percent of my time on research and fifty percent on teaching and other activities. And I've recently transitioned into a much more administrative role as associate dean in the college of engineering.


 


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