Creating community in engineering
by Joe Selmont |
Scott Hamel, assistant professor of civil engineering in UAA’s College of Engineering, understands the impact of hard work and careful mentorship. Over the past eight years, he has put in long hours as faculty advisor to the UAA chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). His students have designed and fabricated a unique steel bridge every spring of the last four years for ASCE’s regional competitions, where they must assemble the bridge as quickly as possible before it is tested for lightness, stiffness, structural efficiency and other factors. The team even advanced to the national competitions in 2019, where they won the Frank J. Hatfield Ingenuity Award.
In recognition of his dedication and labor, ASCE has selected Hamel as one of two recipients in the nation to receive the Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award.
Kacy Grundhauser, a recent UAA graduate and former president of the UAA chapter of ASCE, submitted the nomination that led to Hamel’s award.
Grundhauser, who herself was named one of ASCE’s 2020 New Faces of Civil Engineering, said, “Dr. Hamel has always helped us think less like students being taught and more like engineers who are working to solve a problem. There’s no way we would have been as successful without his help.”
Grundhauser also talked about the difficulties that clubs and faculty advisors face at a school like UAA, where many of the students are non-traditional.
“It can be tough to schedule meetings and work together when a lot of the team are already professionals or parents,” she said. “Plus, only a fraction of us live on campus, which makes student life and community a bit of a challenge.”
But Hamel has always found ways to create community. As director of the ConocoPhillips Structures Testing Lab, Hamel often employs ASCE club members in the lab and encourages the full team to use an adjacent student space to host meetings, improve the steel bridge design and conduct speed trials for assembly. For months at a time, new design ideas are scribbled all over white boards and the half-constructed steel bridge is resting against the wall.
“It’s kind of funny, I might be doing some structural research in one part of the lab, while the Steel Bridge Team are huddled together on the other side of the room,” Hamel said. “I think it helps a lot to have us working together so close, that the team can call me over or drop into my office to bounce ideas off me.”
He added, “At the same time, I try pretty hard to let the students run their own club. I see the advisor’s job as being a liaison to the university, to guide students through all the complex rules and systems. I want them to experiment and learn and make mistakes, but that won’t happen if I step in to take control of the design process.”
Hamel believes that his role is to show students how to navigate the decision-making process, how to shift perspectives and think about long-term ramifications. He wants the students to be prepared for life beyond college, for the “real world” of engineering. In that way, the students in ASCE gain a lot more than a fun memory.