Masters of Engineering (M.Eng.) In Structural Engineering Program
My name is Robert Curtis Stroup and I will begin work on my M.Eng. degree in July 2011. My background is primarily architectural, as I earned a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Oregon in 2007. I also hold a minor in business administration and worked as a junior architect in Seattle for two-and-a-half years. What I believe I bring to Lehigh is an eye for design—what architects and consultants may or may not be looking for structurally in a building. My goal, however, is to learn the primary materials (steel, concrete, metal, wood and composite members) and their physical properties that I feel will strengthen my overall knowledge of how to build properly. I am particularly interested in wood construction, as I am from the Pacific Northwest, where wood is widely available and contributes greatly to the vernacular architecture of the Cascades.
As the year draws to a close, I find myself working closely with Doctors Pessiki and Sause on a research project related to earthquake engineering. My work focuses on the construction of the part of a shear wall. After the recent earthquakes in Japan and South America, many structural engineering communities around the nation have been bracing for the worst upon our own shores as well. This project should provide as good a solution as any as to how to reduce any foreseeable future structural damage inflicted by our most common reinforced-concrete construction methods.
The premise for the study is that purely fixed conditions for supporting walls largely are detrimental to a structure exposed to large seismic loadings. Our initial hypothesis is that it may be better to anchor shear walls by tensioning them throughout the middle with a singular tendon of thicker reinforcing steel (rather than by hooking two smaller longitudinal bars of steel into the concrete base), thereby allowing the walls to sway more freely upon impact. We believe that by accounting for impending motion at the base, and by increasing the tensile resistance throughout the specimen, we will decrease the likelihood for the shear wall to fail in either yielding or rupture. We will test these theories by measuring the deformations and crack widths that develop along the base of our concrete specimen.
As a first project, this has given me a lot to think about during the past two months. Currently I am working on a steel structure to support hydraulic jacks, which we will utilize to brace the specimen as we’ve designed it so far. Our first specimen will replicate the methods used in current construction; later in the year, a second specimen will be designed to test our hypothesis.
One of the few benefits afforded at Lehigh, and unavailable elsewhere, is the experience of the working world. No, really! If there is a reason why Lehigh passes roughly 80 percent of their undergraduates through the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam unscathed, this might be why.
As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, ATLSS feels like the practical extension of the civil and environmental engineering department. Whereas in the classroom one learns to design structural systems, in ATLSS one learns to compromise. This is an invaluable skill, as I found when I was working as an architect two years ago. Many times our designs, even after all the editing, were still largely up for approval by others. As engineers, we may finish the drawings and have all the numbers ready, but there can be external extenuating factors to confront.
At ATLSS, these factors are immediately addressed. One of the best things a student can do is to experience a true work environment by being part of an independent research project (which is what I’ve recently begun under the guidance of Doctors Sause and Pessiki). Every Tuesday, at midday, in the main conference room, there is a scheduling meeting where the Ph.D. candidates, employees and professors meet to discuss what is required for each of their projects: space, nuts and bolts, hands, et cetera.
It’s time well spent: Things don’t necessarily come together as clean as a simple calculation. There’s a lot of back-and-forth in the dialogue. Someone will concur, then disagree, then expound, then take a long breath and try to expound some more. Eventually there’s resolution. And it does take the majority of an hour to accomplish something that at times can seem quite small.
But that something is something. And it’s quintessential to the profession of engineering. It’s the process of compromise; it’s a skill unlike any other taught elsewhere, and it is available at Lehigh University if one should seek it.
When I was young I read Dr. Seuss’ poem The Zax. The poem details a “north-going Zax and a south-going Zax who make tracks in the prairie of Prax.” Not unlike Congress, the two Zaxes bump into one another and stubbornly stand their ground, not moving for the other Zax. Well, over the course of the poem civilization, highways and infrastructure all are built around them the two Zaxes as they are unable to move on with the world.
And that, in a nutshell, is exactly where we as students stand in the workplace without the art of compromise. As graduate students, we should seek out this opportunity, away from the safe confines of a classroom. After all, that is where the working world will be, waiting for us.
Talking to the girlfriend late at night is, thankfully, a subtle reminder that there's quite a bit of work that remains. The FE exam is still on the horizon, only six months away. Have I really mastered the direct stiffness method yet? I could sure use a practice exam right now, I think. And where did those drawings go that I was working on? I'm a bit disorganized, although I hate to admit it.
"Just take things slowly," she says. "Eventually, those baby-steps will all add up." And I know she's right (that was a clause I had to sign in our mutual agreement to date; that the woman is always right) but my mind can't help taking things quickly. I look toward the clock. It's only 6 o'clock but the wind is blowing fiercely and my pale skin is cringing at the concept of even taking one step out the door. I turn the heater on and a text pops up on my iPhone. "I'm up at ATLSS now," it reads.
The car is cold and the snow is more like dirt now that it's mid-February. I rev up the engine, put the car in reverse and wham! my car unsuccessfully rear-ends a pile of snow at the end of the driveway. I get out, take a shovel to the pile and excavate my car from the clutches of what seems like a mini-avalanche. Getting back in to the front seat, I put the car in reverse and slowly pull out onto the road again. A faint spritz of snow kicks up from my front wheel, and I slide momentarily, but eventually I muster a rhythm and within seconds I am at ATLSS on the mountain.
Ah, Lehigh University in the winter. It is a winter wonderland.
The door opens and Tom the teaching assistant comes out, his forearm stretched with a curled index finger inviting me inside. We walk down the hall and discuss the Whitney stress block homework assignment due on Thursday. As we enter the graduate offices, I see a plethora of students not unlike myself with their AISC and ACI manuals held firmly in their palms, racing up and down the corridors thirsting for solutions.
"Come on in," Tom says. "It can get a little crazy in here."
Yes, there is quite a bit to do, and everyone is conscious of the impending qualifying examinations, but it's a universal given that the students just accept. That day will come, everyone knows, and while we all look like a bunch of lemmings running off a cliff in search of the nominal bending moment in some thick chunk of concrete, for this moment it makes great sense. And some day, God willing, it will pay off.
Fall at Lehigh is a balancing act. How much force distributes to this joint? Is it pinned? Is it fixed? Why the minus sign? And does that infer positive or negative direction? Which way is up exactly? The whole experience is one gigantic undertow and as students, we are merely the coastal creatures caught up in the wake.
The devil is in the details. Always. Waking up at 6 o'clock, showering, shaving, eating and running out the door, one makes sure to be continually thinking about the methods—how to break down a free body diagram, how to find the moments and reactions and use them to establish the ideal size for a rod of steel or a concrete column. And by the time those glass doors swing open and that humongous belly of ATLSS greets the light of day, you better darn well have the dance steps memorized if you want to do well on the exam. Without practice, you'll be just another bent piece of steel who's succumbed to the stress of a compression chamber.
Or maybe it's more like an oven. Whatever the analogy is, come October structural engineering students bear the weight of heightened expectations. That is to say, as one, you need to know what the moment distribution method is, you need to use slope deflection appropriately, and fixed-end moment reactions should be etched into your brain. It's similar to Italian cuisine; it's your job to put the meal together while never forgetting that it's all about the ingredients.
Lehigh likes to attack you, like an NFL linebacker blitz package. You can't get by just on smarts, even if you claim to be an intellectual giant. And you'll know it when you hear the concrete burst at the seams after 5 million kips of strength rips it apart. Even ATLSS shrugs, it seems.
Fish are weird. They flop around; they have to be baited to be caught; they smell like sulfur when decaying and yet they taste like heaven if properly cooked. They’re buttery, yet slimy. They’re also scaly. They travel in schools yet don’t attend class, and although they themselves are predators, they’re always finding themselves on the bottom of the food chain for reasons they don’t quite understand. Now that I’ve said as much, please keep the image of a fish in your mind, and contemplate about what it might mean to you, , as I discuss something else far more relevant to engineering.
I used to believe that architecture was nothing more than a box elaborated. It was purely superficial — baseboard, trim, wainscoting, whatever — and the life of the typical human being consisted of the best selection of cheap building materials at a Home Depot. I don’t think that anymore.
A fish changed all of that.
People can disagree with him, but one Frank Gehry, nicknamed “Fish” (for whatever reason even he can’t explain), shouldn’t have challenged that deeply held belief, but he did. When I was 22, visiting Spain for the first time, I walked through Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Upon my first step into the silver-clad sculpture (for I dare not call it a building), I was pleasantly accosted by an overly eager Spaniard holding a sleek pair of headphones.
“Wear these,” he said in broken English. He proceeded to explain the significance as to why we should, and although our comprehension of his message was extremely limited, we nevertheless took him up on the offer. I never saw the man after my first round on the museum ramps, but in the rare and improbable chance that he’s somehow stumbled onto my blog, I’d like to say “Thank you.”
The building itself was a total affront to all things structural. With its errant tossing of airplane metal, travertine and installation art, the whole experience was like being Gene Hackman in the Poseidon Adventure: I felt partially oppressed, and there was a dire need to find the light out of the submerged boat I was in. But by no means should an engineer, having walked through the museum, feel discouraged, even if the steel was bent, the stone was chipping away, and the metal was obviously oxidizing.
In fact, it was completely liberating. We heard commentary on the headphones, in an unfettered mixture of Catalan and English, and the fact that this was Spain and yet it wasn’t reverberated persuasively. Outside we saw a tower juxtaposed with a gigantic mechanical spider (like the one in the awful Jon Peters movie, Wild, Wild West) and time and space both seemingly became irrelevant. A bridge in the distance hung from a single suspension cable arced gracefully in a mathematics-defying swoop. Frankly, I had no idea what in the world was going on.
This is the point where a professor would deduct ten points for my even suggesting that this fundamental abstraction, this post-structural architecture absurdity and its undisputed king Frank Gehry means something to engineering. But it does, and he does, and it’s important to me (as someone with a background in architectural design) that engineers understand why.
I didn’t know much about it at the time, but Gehry is largely responsible for the birth of what we call Deconstructivism. It’s an architectural style, which got so deconstructive that architects penned the style DeCon for short. And more importantly, it isn’t structural. But without the proper engineering of the trusses, beams, girders, columns, fanciful shapes, and whatnot, this form of building — or moreover, imagining — can’t even exist. The tension of that bridge strung together by a single thread wouldn’t be possible. And the style itself might even be considered in the annals of time as a colossal failure (and to some extent, that’s what I think of it, too) but it definitely opens a door that wasn’t there. It certainly utilizes structural forms in a way they haven’t been used, and because of the newfound possibilities, as engineers we are developing numerous modeling techniques for that potential.
So I encourage anyone, as a student or a professor in engineering, to embrace the weirdness of a fish. Go watch Sydney Pollack’s documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry — see the drawings, realize the visions. Enjoy the paradox. You’re partially responsible for them. And although Gehry himself claims, “it was by accident that [he] got into the fish image,” there isn’t anything coincidental about it. It’s a statement, for architects and engineers alike that yeah, something is going on — it’s weird, completely irrational, and also utterly wonderful — and you’re a part of it.
Yes, the box is still elaborated. But the meaning of the verb elaborate has changed. It means many different things, and can be conceived in many different ways, but there is no possible meaning to it all without you.
The CEO had a glint in his eye that told me he was onto something. I’ve been here for only three months, and in all that time, I hadn’t seen anything quite like what I saw in his smile. He turned to his partner, who similarly had quite the Cheshire-cat grin, and I realized exactly where I was. This was something that hadn’t been done before. This was an experimental test that could, if the design parameters were met, revolutionize industrial construction.
For obvious reasons, I cannot give the specifics of what was being tested, but what I can say is I entered the lab at 10:30 in the morning, came back at 5 p.m. to close the building, and outside of the research scientist for whom I was working; only these two men remained. They were watching the entire test as if they were both expectant fathers in an obstetrics ward. And to a large extent, that’s exactly what they were.
As an engineer, you are ultimately responsible for the built environments that surround life. Work becomes life, and for those two men, that has meant two years of designing the correct dimensions, the appropriate load paths, and the design stresses for yielding and fracture.
And yet it’s just a joint, right? It’s just a simple connection, and the materials are just concrete, just steel or just wood, right? No. It’s infinitely more. It’s something these people have invested days, months, years in and now that they’ve got the chance to see their model undergo trials of static loads, dynamic loads, or better yet, a synchronization of the two. Staring at the two men, I could only share their enthusiasm.
Imagination, as Albert Einstein once said, really is more important than knowledge, but the two are both unmistakably influential in engineering. Both processes require a pinch of creativity. As I closed the shop that day, I felt grateful for having the chance to spend part of it with these two professionals who’d undertaken both the idea and the application of it. They reminded me that as technicians and designers, we are the dreamers of dreams. And a dream, it seems, can be realized if the appropriate amount of time and execution is invested in it.
Civil engineering at Lehigh is powerful enough to remind students of that truth. It’s never just a joint in the lab. Much like a doctor in a hospital, you are there to deliver a concept into reality. So having the chance to work with research scientists such Ian Hodgson and expert technicians such as Gene Matlock? And talking with the two engineers? You can say it’s an experience that opens eyes and minds alike.
In the fall of 2008, the economy hit us hard. I was a junior architect working in Seattle with a first-row seat to an unending marketplace nightmare. I could see the Washington Mutual employees filtering out of revolving doors searching all of Pike Avenue for a ride home. They had brown boxes and some even carried their office chairs with them. It was horrible to witness, and everyone left the office that day a little less secure because WaMu was a major client of our firm.
It turned out four divisions in our firm were cut. And that included my services as well. My brother, Scott, had just arrived from California to move in with me. It ended up being the worst homecoming reception ever. As soon as I’d been told to go, my card was taken, the doors were shut, and I too became another box exiting a revolving door. Fortunately, Scott caught up with me on Pine Avenue and took me to dinner at the Pioneer Square Mall. We talked.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
I answered that I’d probably look for work elsewhere. I wasn’t going to give up on architecture that easily. I’d worked for the firm for a solid two-and-a-half years, was close to finishing my Intern Development Program, and had already started taking licensure tests. I convinced myself there had to be somewhere else in Seattle for me and my budding portfolio.
Within a month, I realized that wasn’t the case. A few of my friends had landed jobs, but weren’t paid for architecture work, and I began to realize that it might be best to look elsewhere. In October of that year, I attended an auction sponsored by Miller Hull Architects. One of the architects there, a graduate of Harvard University, mentioned that he had been in a similar predicament in his career.
“I went to graduate school, earned a Master’s of Science in Engineering, and became a project engineer further down the line,” he told me, “and that helped me as an architect. Not many architects get their hands on the material they’re working with.” He further suggested that taking courses at the University of Washington wouldn’t hurt.
So I began taking courses at Washington, but after a full term at the school, I became dissatisfied with the laissez-faire approach to engineering at an oversized school. If I was going into structural engineering, I wanted to work with passionate people who genuinely cared about the field. I wasn’t getting that in Seattle. So, in the fall of 2009, after a year of taking leveling courses at UW, I applied to a handful of schools, heard back from four, hopped a plane and saw what the rest of America had to offer.
What I was really looking for were people who worked tirelessly and didn’t limit themselves to just one aspect of structural engineering. I looked for a good lab where industry professionals and professors alike worked to gain a better understanding of what the design parameters were for concrete, steel, metal, wood, and composite members. I looked for a school that had structural health monitoring, one that was willing to not forget that structural mechanics, at its core, was a mathematical field in addition to a physical one.
And I found nowhere better than Lehigh University. At a handful of schools I met professors who were very passionate about their field, but at each school there was primarily one area of expertise, one building and one or two guys everyone went to for guidance. Not at Lehigh. The first day I walked through Fritz Laboratory’s mammoth entrance, I saw the 5-million-kip compression and tension chamber and could only think that the Death Star itself, blowing apart Alderaan into tiny pieces, couldn’t match the force in this chamber. (And yes, I know it’s a corny pun.) But when Dr. Pessiki said there was a newer, larger facility (ATLSS) up on the hill? That won me.
Granted, I hadn’t applied to all the civil engineering departments in the nation, and it’s safe to say that many have something special to offer. But only a handful can offer something more after that. That was what I liked so much about visiting Lehigh. There was an already impressive facility on the main campus, but then there was something more: a chance to extend education both academically and professionally. Only the select schools literally have industries knocking on their door, which is invaluable to a student, and Lehigh certainly had that.
Also, as someone who has a keen eye for design, it was nice to meet professors who were similarly interested in architecture as well as structures. Professors like Jennifer Gross and Dr. Pessiki sharing their respective interests in creating a short, 10-month program where students work on the design for a particular building truly captivated me. It was something I’d wanted to do as an architecture student and had never really done.
So the choice was obvious, really. I had to come to Lehigh. I had good friends back home, loved Portland and Seattle with all of my soul, but when the opportunity calls, and you’re able to work in some of the top facilities in the world with some of the brightest minds—you just don’t say no to that. And so I didn’t, and that is why I’m here.