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Ask an Engineer Why and How, Installment 1: Introduction

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


Happy New Year!!

The purpose of this edition of my blog is to try to explain why I’m a reliable and respected source to provide information about engineering. 

I start writing each of these stories as a stream of consciousness that I then re-read, redline, rewrite, cut, append and mash the words into what becomes “close-enough” to be an entertaining story.  Then I forward it to Marybeth, she hits me with a frown and couple “do you REALLY want to say that, that way??” statements, and it gets a final revision and is published.  For this blog, during my first, and subsequent re-reads I WAS HORRIFIED!!!  This reads like one big “look at me!” story, and each I time I cut it, it gets worse instead of better.  So please accept this offering with a little understanding that it’s difficult to write, “ask me,” without also saying, “look at me.”  The self-deprecating writing style that you’ve experienced in my last two dozen or so blogs is a lot closer to the real me than this un-deprecating story, so just get past this one and look forward to next month.

Although “An Engineer in the Woods” has been fun to write, after 19 installments I’m going to take a break and change topics for a while, though I promise to come back to the series soon because I have A LOT more house disasters to write about…more EVERY day.

I’m not an author or (obviously) a home improvement expert.  I’m an engineer, more specifically a civil engineer, and within that field I am primarily a water resources engineer, although I have picked-up several additional specialties over the past decades.  My dad was an engineer.  His dad was an engineer.  Dad’s brother and brother in-law were engineers.  Mom’s brother and brother in-law were engineers.  My brother was an engineer.  My younger sister’s husband is an engineer.  My wife is an engineer.  I’m an engineer.

I had a HUGE saSand Boxndbox as a kid (not the one in this pic, mine was BIGGER).  I built channels, and dams, and aqueducts, and reservoirs, and arches – then I flooded the sandbox with water and watched what happened.  At five I did some of the same hydraulic experiments that I performed 18 years later as a graduate student.  I wasn’t being smart when I was a kid, just curious.  I was going to be an engineer.

I also had an HO scale two-level train track with a tunnel and bridges that Dad and I built together.  Different kind of engineer (choo-choo)…

My seventh-grade science fair experiment was studying the effects of soil erosion and fertilizer runoff in a terrarium that I built.  Really what I did was build a concrete stream and a plastic jug bottom reservoir in a ten-gallon aquarium filled with topsoil and plants that I had transplanted from the woods around our home.  I aerated the pond, built an airlift pump to recirculate the water through the stream, fertilized the plants, and watered with a spray watering can to simulate rain.  It was fun, not really an “experiment.”  The pond turned green, then brown and the snails and creek chubs that I put in it died.  Then I learned about the Science Fair at Troy Junior High.  I created a diary of what I had done and observed, gave the terrarium a title that I have since forgotten, and won a blue ribbon.  At twelve I had no idea what I had proven (though I know now).  All I learned was, “Don’t put fertilizer and mud in a small pond.” I was going to be an engineer.

I started working for my mom and dad’s engineering firm when I was 9.  I accepted my first full-time job for a firm in Champaign when I was 23.  I will celebrate my 56th birthday this month making this my 33rd year as a full-time engineer. 

I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering (Environmental – Wastewater) and a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering (Hydrology, Hydraulics) both from the University of Illinois.  I’m an engineer.

I belong to the American Council of Engineering Companies, American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Water Works Association, the Association of State Floodplain Managers, the National Society of Professional Engineers, and the Water Environment Federation.  I have held leadership positions, received awards and earned certifications from many of those associations. I’m an engineer.

I am a licensed Professional Engineer in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and the country of Trinidad and Tobago.  I am a Certified Floodplain Manager (CFM), a Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control (CPESC), a nationally certified Disaster Service Worker (Civil Engineer) under the State of California Safety Assessment Program, an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Class 3 Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator, and am OSHA-30 certified in Construction Safety and Health.  I have been the appointed Village or City Engineer for four different communities (our firm has represented over a dozen), in addition I was the Chief Engineer for the Will County Land Use Department and the Executive Director of the Will County Stormwater Management Planning Committee.

I’m an engineer.

One of things I have done many times is spoken to students (junior high, high school, junior college, college) about the profession of engineering.  I stole (and paraphrased) the following definition of engineering many years ago for one of those lectures, and have since forgotten where I found it,

“Engineering is the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people.”

I then gave it my own spin saying that,

“Engineering is making the world a better place to live by designing cool stuff.”

“Cool” is definitely in the eye of the beholder but if you think that at least a few of my explanations that I will provide in this series are cool, or fun, I will have achieved my purpose.

One of the challenges that I give the students is to find something in the classroom or the lecture hall that has not been affected by an engineer (I’ll give you a hint, engineering touches EVERYTHING, but most people don’t realize it).

If you’ve ever wondered why something does or doesn’t work, or wondered how something could work better – you’ve thought like an engineer.  Engineers wonder, then solve.  I can probably help you hone those wondering and solving skills as you learn “Why and How” many things are the way they are, and that is the purpose of this series, to explain the simple and the complex while teaching how to think like an engineer.  I will not resort to calculus or abstract theories in my explanations, I hope to always be able to provide a fun story as a way of educating – which means that most of my engineer friends may not be challenged by this series – but I do hope it will be fun.

If you have a specific question about ANYTHING (remember, engineering touches EVERYTHING), or a topic that you would like to learn about, drop me a line at  Include “Ask an Engineer” in your subject line.  I will respond to you and hopefully use the question as the topic for a future blog (or blogs).  In my opinion, asking a question does not reveal a lack of knowledge it reveals maturity in the knowledge that you have (wisdom) by showing that you are smart enough to know that you don’t know everything.  So, don’t be embarrassed to ask this engineer anything (I won’t tell anyone that you are the one who asked the question!).

“Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn,” Kurt Vonnegut.

Have a wonderingful day!