Rat Bible knowledge? Check. Right uniform, right time, right place? Check. Wet, dirty hands? Check.
If you’re a rat in the Fundamentals of Civil Engineering course taught by Col. Dean Kershaw ’68, holder of the Wachtmeister Chair in Civil Engineering, then you know that wet, dirty hands aren’t just permitted. They’re expected. After all, how can you learn a hands-on field without getting your hands dirty—and wet, since one of Kershaw’s basic lab activities involves building your own water filter?
While their peers at larger schools might be sitting in lecture halls for most of their freshman year in college, rats in Kershaw’s class are in the labs, learning by doing from day one.
“We’re doing more of a trial-and-error method,” said Cadet Erin Grabeel, a member of the Rat Mass of 2023+3. “We don’t really know how we were supposed to build the water filter. So, we had to kind of brainstorm how to think about what we have used before coming in.”
Matriculating to VMI, Grabeel wasn’t sure which aspect of civil engineering appealed the most to her. “This is definitely going to further my ideas of what part of civil engineering I want to go into,” she stated.
Cadet Aaron Horton, another member of the Rat Mass of 2023+3, likewise sees the benefits of the hands-on approach to civil engineering. “What this class does is put everything under a microscope so you can learn what you’re doing … You can actually know what’s going on behind the process,” he stated.
Small classes also augment the learning process. “The classes are very intimate,” Horton explained. “I like that a lot. You can actually talk to your [professor] and build a relationship.”
For budding engineers, getting out of the classroom and into the field or lab is key, Kershaw explained, because civil engineering is a very broad field. Civil engineers don’t just build roads and bridges, he noted; they also play a vital role in making sure our water is safe to drink and that traffic moves as safely and efficiently as possible, among many other tasks.
“The whole idea [of the Fundamentals of Civil Engineering course] is to expose them to all the different things they can do as a civil engineer,” said Kershaw, who served in the U.S. Army for 29 years and then worked in private industry for another quarter-century before coming to teach at VMI.
A water filtration lab, Kershaw stated, is an ideal way to introduce the basics of environmental engineering because water is essential to life. “[Water] is key to our survival. … Around the world, more children die from bad water than from any other thing,” Kershaw stated.
In addition to the water filtration lab, cadets in the Fundamentals of Civil Engineering course this past fall made their own concrete, toured the concourse underneath barracks to learn about structural engineering, and gauged the speed of traffic on the U.S. 11 bypass near post, among many other activities. Just before the semester ended, the class toured the newly completed Aquatic Center.
With his longstanding experience in the profession, Kershaw could be doing any number of things rather than teach rats. He could also be enjoying a well-deserved retirement. Instead, he’s chosen to spend time with new cadets. “The interesting thing about working with rats is that you get to see them mature,” he commented. “And then in a lab environment where they’re working as a group, you see the teamwork develop, you see the natural leaders come forward. … It’s very easy to see who are going to be the leaders of the Corps and of the country when they graduate.”
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