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 From the Ground Up

Andrea Schokker: Building UMD's New Civil Engineering Program

Andrea Schokker
Andrea Schokker, this past summer, on the site of UMD's new Civil Engineering building.

In the fall of 2008, Professor Andrea Schokker was hoping that 25 students would enroll in UMD’s new Department of Civil Engineering program. It would validate UMD’s decision to address the need for civil engineers, both in this region and across the country. When 60 students were enrolled in the new program after the first week, it was very gratifying. “Every day, I’m more excited about this program. It’s clear, we can make an impact,” Schokker said.

In September 2007, James I. and Susan Swenson and the Swenson Family Foundation announced gifts that included $3 million toward the construction of a new civil engineering building as well as $7.7 million for science and research scholarships. In April 2008, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty signed a bonding bill that included $10 million for the new civil engineering building. Construction is well under way on the building, designed by Chicago architect Carol Ross Barney, and is expected to open in fall 2010.

Like the Labovitz School of Business and Economics building, this will be a gold-certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building. LEED is a rating system developed by the US Green Building Council to encourage sustainable development. The rating system gives points based on sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality and will be yet another way for UMD to express its commitment to lowering its carbon footprint and increasing its sustainability on a daily basis.

Schokker points out that the civil engineering building will be an excellent teaching tool. It was designed to put civil engineering “on display”. The building itself will be part of the educational process. Different materials within the structure and how those materials are connected will be visible. “This is great for students who need to see how things are put together,” Schokker said.

The new structure will include state-of-the-art laboratories, classrooms and administrative offices. Facilities will include a structural strong floor and reaction wall with two 15-ton gantry cranes, hydraulics lab with large-scale flume, construction materials lab, geomaterials lab (soil and rock testing), and parts fabrication lab.

UMD’s civil engineering program focuses on four areas of engineering specialty: geotechnical, structures, transportation, and water resources. All of these areas are critical to northeastern Minnesota. Schokker stresses that this is a very hands-on degree, firmly based in strong technical skills, fundamentals, sustainability, and professionalism.

She said that students who earn their BSCE (Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering) at UMD are “going to know what to do” when they get into the field. Schokker believes it is important for civil engineers to understand a wide range of processes. She values the hands-on experiences she had as an undergraduate. She was part of a surveying crew, worked for the Missouri DOT highway department, and she did bridge inspection in Finland.

When asked how she became a civil engineer, she laughs and says, “I did it because they said I couldn’t do it and that’s the honest truth.” She adds, however, that she was always good at math and science and that once she got into civil engineering, she found it was a good fit. Early on, she was interested in aerospace engineering, then became interested in buildings and bridges and eventually became fascinated with concrete and the durability of concrete structures. Before coming to UMD, Schokker was director of the Protective Technology Center and professor in charge of the Undergraduate Program in Civil and Environmental Engineering and ABET at Penn State.

James P. Riehl, Dean of the Swenson College of Science and Engineering, is happy to have Schokker heading the program. “She’s just the right person for the job. She is extremely knowledgeable about curriculum issues and committed to hiring a cohesive faculty. She’s also a great person to have involved in the building of our new facilities. I can’t imagine anyone else fitting better,” he said. Riehl is pleased with Schokker’s enthusiasm to meet and talk with local and regional civil engineers and to garner their support for the project. “Students have told me what a spectacular teacher she is,” Riehl added.

Schokker says the response to UMD’s new civil engineering program has been very positive. Civil Engineering is part of a UMD High School Day program in which sophomores and juniors from throughout the region, including the Iron Range, are invited to learn more about engineering.

More young women are becoming interested in civil engineering and Schokker points out that issues such as sustainability are often of great interest to them. She hopes that the civil engineering student population will continue to grow in diversity, as “different ways of thinking are good for everyone,” she said.

Schokker is optimistic about the future of civil engineering in the United States. “Each year there are not enough graduates to meet the demand,” she said. She believes enrollment in civil engineering is higher because of an increased visibility of civil engineering challenges such as the aftermath of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the I-35 bridge collapse here in Minnesota. “Students can see that they are needed,” she said. Also the aging infrastructure of the country clearly points to a need for more civil engineers. “It’s not a profession that can be outsourced as easily as others,” she stated.

This fall, there were approximately 65 new freshmen in UMD’s Department of Civil Engineering program. The validation just keeps on coming.

Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann,

UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830

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