A Conversation with Tripp Shenton, Professor of Civil Engineering at University of Delaware

Prof. Tripp Shenton, University of Delaware

With twenty five years as a University Professor in the field of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Tripp Shenton brings his academic experience to TSP2, at both the regional and national level. I spoke with Tripp about several topics including how to increase the popularity of bridge preservation in the academic environment.

Could you talk about your professional career?

I am a Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Delaware. I teach undergraduate and graduate courses, primarily with a focus on mechanics. My main area of research is structural health monitoring, with a focus on bridge evaluation and bridge monitoring.

I have been a professor for twenty five years. Prior to that I was in graduate school, but I also spent six years in the public sector working for the Federal Government.

Can you provide some insights about your involvement with the TSP2 Bridge Preservation program?

I have been involved with TSP2 for about eight years. As the academic director for the North-East Bridge Preservation Partnership (NEBPP), I attend the annual meeting, the monthly conference calls and also the national meetings that take place every four years. At the annual meetings I have given presentations and facilitated break-out sessions.

I have also compiled statements of research needs and conducted one small research project that was funded by the NEBPP.

This is generally how I contribute to the Bridge Preservation Partnership right now.

What about the “Research” TSP2 Regional Working Group that you chair?

This Working Group has been formed recently. Not a lot has been done so far through the group.  We are in the early stages of work development.

Has your collaboration with TSP2 affected your academic research programs? If so, how?

It certainly has. I would not say that my research prior to getting involved with TSP2 had anything directly to do with bridge preservation. Research in the fields of structural health monitoring and bridge evaluation is certainly related to bridge preservation but not as directly as the types of activities that the TSP2 Partnership is focused on.

As mentioned before, I carried out a small research project that was funded by the NEBPP several years ago (Ed Note: see Link Section). It was a survey of the past experience and state of practice of the design and maintenance of small movement bridge joints in the North-East region.  That small project led into a larger research project that was funded by NCHRP (12-100). It entailed developing guidelines for maintenance and repair of small movement bridge joints (Ed Note: see Link Section).

These are the topics I can point to for how my collaboration with TSP2 has affected my research program.

What about future research programs?

Since I have been involved with TSP2 several topics came to light that could lead to research programs. However at this time we are simply discussing ideas.

Are students in civil engineering at the University of Delaware aware of bridge preservation initiatives? Are they exposed to bridge preservation programs?

Our general Civil Engineering program is a 4-year degree that has many sub-disciplinaries, such as structural engineering, transportation, geotech, environmental and construction. There are a lot of different areas that students can be exposed to in a general Civil Engineering degree program such as ours. Within structures they are exposed to some aspects of bridge engineering, but they most likely do not get down to the level of detail of bridge preservation.  So I would say that generally students are not exposed to bridge preservation or aware of these initiatives. Bridges represent only one type of structure that civil engineers design and preservation is just a small element of bridge engineering.

The primary ways students could be exposed to bridge preservation would be either through courses or the research they are involved in.  Another avenue would be internships. A lot of our students work over the summer in internships and co-op opportunities. Many of them work for the Department of Transportation and some of them end up working in bridges. If they are in an experience like that, they can certainly be exposed to bridge preservation initiatives.

What can be done to attract talents to bridge preservation?  

Today young men and women coming into engineering are looking for areas that excite them, they can be passionate about, they have a real interest in, and where they will be able to get a job when they finish. There is an awful lot of competition within the engineering professions. A number of engineering disciplines come across as very high-tech, sexy, and innovative. I think of biomedical, nanotechnology,  and cyber security, for example, which are disciplines that you hear a lot about in the news today.

To get the students’ interested in civil engineering we have to make sure we do a good job of promoting and marketing what civil engineers do, how they make a difference, what the important problems are that they solve.  Civil engineering is not usually perceived as glossy and is not frequently linked to the exciting stories that one hears in the news, even though civil engineers solve very important problems that are relevant for the community.

Young people today are very interested in sustainability, climate change, and environmental stewardship. They are concerned about the future of our environment and what we do about it. Bridge preservation can connect with these issues very nicely because it is all about promoting long-term sustainable bridge structures, keeping them in service longer so that we do not have to replace them when they turn 50.  We need to make young adults understand the critical problems bridge preservation engineers are working on and tie them to sustainability.

Unlike other engineering disciplines, civil engineers serve the public. They are not designing the next smart phone or creating a new widget so that some big corporation can make a lot of money. Civil engineers work for the society. This is of tremendous interest to a lot of young people. In tailoring a statement about the importance of bridge preservation, we must underline the fact that bridge preservation engineers not only support a more sustainable approach to engineering but also serve the community.

What could TSP2 do to increase awareness of bridge preservation in the academic environment, focusing on both teachers and students?

One approach would be to develop teaching modules in bridge preservation.  It is a common practice to develop modules for new fields that want to try to inject their issues in a curriculum.  In most undergraduate, and even in graduate civil engineering programs today, you will probably not find a single course in bridge preservation. However, if teachers have a module or two, they could use them in their lectures to introduce the idea of bridge preservation in their courses. Teaching modules would definitively be of benefit to the faculty.

More and more civil engineering programs are linked to sustainability. We have a brand new course on sustainability in our program that every civil engineering student has to take. A few  modules on bridge preservation that an instructor could use in the sustainability course would be of big help.

Promoting research in bridge preservation and advocating for research funding is also important.  From my perspective, while there is a lot of interest in bridge preservation by  owners, consultants, supplier, contractors, and FHWA, there is not a lot of research going on today. It is just not happening, mainly because funding is not there. If there were more funding, more faculty would get involved in research in bridge preservation and  more students would be exposed to this discipline. This would lead to more students graduating and wanting to go to work in the bridge preservation area.

I also think that TSP2 should work with owners and vendors to create internship or co-op opportunities for students focusing in bridge preservation.  A large majority of students today will have had at least one internship before graduating. They can use the internship to explore different areas of engineering. They can see if they are interested in structures or geotech or environmental, for example. Internship and co-op opportunities where students can work in bridge preservation for the summer, would allow students to gain knowledge about this discipline. Students can understand the problems that are addresses in the short and long-term, learn about key technologies and critical issues, with the result that when they graduate they may go into bridge preservation. If a student does a good job in the internship, likes the company or the agency, and that is reciprocated, the student can get a permanent job offer when graduating.

It is important to create a connection between bridge preservation and internship opportunities. A lot of DOTs already have internship programs. What should be assured of are internship slots in the preservation area.



Small Joint Movement – NEBPP Research Program link?

Small Joint Movement – NCHRP Guidelines link?