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Hanson Teaching Civil Engineering Students to Ask the Creative Questions

February 19, 2013

Story by Dale Long, Director of Media Relations

Award-winning civil engineering educator Jim Hanson, PhD, believes teaching is more about giving students the ability to ask the right questions than providing future engineers with just skills to address tomorrow's challenging problems.

       Hanson in class
  Asking Questions: Civil Engineering Professor Jim Hanson strives to get students to come up with creative, out-of-the-box concepts in design projects.

That's why Rose-Hulman students know Hanson isn't always going to answer a question posed in class or project review session. Rather, Hanson is most likely to reply with a question like "Is that reasonable?" "Why did you come up with that conclusion?" Or, "Convince me that's the best solution."

"Our students need to know how to do things better," says Hanson. "They have all the knowledge and skills to address a multitude of questions. I challenge them to come up with the very best solution to solve those questions."

Students' problem-solving and design skills were further honed this fall in a new building systems course developed by Hanson. The mission of the first project assignment was designing a structure that could stand with only three base columns. Hanson took great pride in the students' multitude of creative solutions, each taking a different design approach.

Then, in Hanson's construction course, he challenged students to plan the development of a paved road or trail in a tropical rain forest.

"My job is to get students to think creatively. It's those out-of-the-box concepts that excite me and bring me to the classroom with a sense of wonder," says Hanson, the department's senior structural engineering faculty member. "I teach students about complexity, ethics, and project management—those valuable skills that will make them effective engineers. They need to understand how to deal with a problem that they have never seen before. When completing a design project, they need to step back and reflect on what they have done. Is it the best solution? Could they have done better? Will the design stand the test of time?"

There are those questions again.

Hanson's inquisitive nature has extended to other aspects of his professional career. In 2004, he started a National Science Foundation-sponsored project to interview 35 of America's leading practicing structural engineers—searching to find those traits that made them successful. What they have in common: Each professional could identify problems throughout the design stage and understood the significance of finding a reasonable solution.

"While these outstanding engineers, at the top of their fields, are creative and innovative, there are basic principles that are part of every design they complete," the professor states. He is using that valuable insight, along with his classroom teachings and professional career lessons, to write a structural analysis textbook.

Students appreciate the talents and challenges that Hanson brings to the classroom. In 2006, civil engineering seniors surprised him with a necktie signed by each of them as a holiday gift. The cherished token has become an annual tradition, and Hanson proudly wears each year's "Senior Class Tie" to professional meetings.

"The tie is a constant reminder of why I'm a teacher. I exist for my students," he says. "I strive to take them as far as they need to go with a limit that exceeds even my imagination." .




PhD, structural engineering (minor in solid mechanics),
        Cornell University, 2000
MENG, structural engineering (minor in geotechnical engineering),
        Cornell University, 1996
Engineer Officer Basic Course (distinguished graduate),
       U.S. Army Engineer Center, 1992
BS, civil engineering (with distinction), Cornell University, 1991

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, 2002-present
Bucknell University, visiting professor, 2000-2002
Cornell University, instructor/lecturer/teaching assistant, 1995-2000
U.S. Army Engineer Center,
       expert on construction of military pipelines, 1992-94

Structural analysis
Structural design: reinforced concrete, prestressed concrete, and steel
Solid mechanics
Fracture mechanics
Finite element analysis

Structural designer for major chemical corporation
U.S. Army engineer officer
Consultant to various industrial clients

Rose-Hulman Dean's Outstanding Teacher Award, 2012
Fellow, American Concrete Institute, 2012
Rose-Hulman Honorary Alumni Award, 2010
Outstanding Paper Award, ASEE, 2009
Rose-Hulman Excellence in Service Award, 2009
Outstanding Teaching Award, ASEE-Illinois-Indiana Section, 2008
Outstanding Paper Award, ASEE-Illinois-Indiana Section, 2008
American Concrete Institute Walter P. Moore, Jr.
      Faculty Achievement Award, 2007
ASEE Ferdinand P. Beer and E. Russell Johnston, Jr.,
      Outstanding New Mechanics Educator Award, 2006