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What makes an environment?

Arizona’s varying ecosystems make it a great (big!) civil engineering classroom.

Environments come in all shapes and sizes, but they are pretty much grouped into one of two categories: natural or artificial. Engineering, particularly civil engineering, is the science of designing and building an environment. Understanding the natural world is key to creating an artificial one that works.

Dr. Bryan Boulanger is an associate professor of civil engineering at Ohio Northern University who believes that teaching students to understand the relationship between natural and artificial environments is best done through experience. That’s why he takes one class each year on an extended field trip far away from Ada, Ohio, where students can experience for themselves a variety of natural and engineered environments.

Arizona holds the distinction of being the last contiguous state admitted into the United States, but it should be known for the wide variety of ecosystems that can be found over the two-hour drive between Phoenix and Flagstaff. In just four days, Boulanger and seven engineering students visited five distinct environments: natural desert (Saguaro National Park), artificial closed living system (Biosphere 2), natural fissure (Grand Canyon), pre-Columbian artificial living community (Walnut Canyon National Monument) and artificial reservoir (Lake Mead/Hoover Dam).

What’s different about this class is that I want students to learn to appreciate natural systems,” says Boulanger. “The premise is if they understand how natural systems function and what their characteristics are, they will become better designers, because we are building in a natural system. That’s what we do.

Of all the sites they toured, the most direct example of this is Saguaro National Park and Biosphere 2. They are located in the same area, but the park is a natural desert and Biosphere 2 is an artificial-living environment created to see if humans can colonize another planet. In a sense, the purpose of Biosphere 2 is to “correct" the natural aspects of a desert so it is more hospitable to humans.

Another lesson the students learn is how artificial systems and natural systems react to each other. A perfect example is the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam.

The Colorado River created the Grand Canyon over millions of years, and in just five, humans built a dam to stem the river’s flow in order to generate electricity, control flooding and provide irrigation. Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the damming of the Colorado River, is an entire ecosystem unto itself, created entirely by engineers.

For Boulanger, engineering projects like the Hoover Dam are not only huge engineering achievement, but also cautionary tales. He credits recent failings of civil engineering projects across the country with short-sighted ideas of what engineers could, and more importantly should, do.

The reason that so much of our infrastructure is broken is because we built things that don’t function in the natural system,” he says. “If I can tune our next generation of engineers into some of these concepts, they’ll be better design engineers, and hopefully our systems will last longer because they’ll work better.

One of the sites the group toured, Montezuma Castle National Monument, perhaps best illustrates the temperamental relationship between the natural and artificial world played out over time. It is widely accepted that the Sinagua people constructed and resided in a series of structures between 1100 and 1425 A.D. The structures were built into the canyon walls 90 feet above the canyon floor. It is believed they did so to protect themselves from the elements, which included annual flooding of the Beaver Creek below and hostility from other peoples. Clearly, the Sinagua were attempting to change the natural environment into one more conducive to human habitation. And while they succeeded from an engineering perspective, as the structures’ existence nearly 1,000 years later can attest, the success of Montezuma Castle was ultimately a mystery because the Sinagua fled for unknown reasons in the 15th century.

The trip gives the students a lot of information to digest. After all, it is a rather intense four days. To ensure they get the most out of each location, the students spent time researching one of the areas they visited on the trip and then presented to the rest of the class. Each presentation was between 30 and 40 minutes and provided a primer for the day’s destination. It was a great way to get everyone excited about what they were about to see. According to Boulanger, this had a very practical benefit as well.

“We never needed a ranger with us because we always had someone in our group who was proficient with the area already.”

Engineering students Camila Teles De Rietra Garcia, Clayton Campbell, Nate Ogden, Paul Gearhart, Alex Altman, Julia Rossini Lupinacci and Rodrigo Seixas Sansevero took part in the trip at no cost to themselves. The College of Engineering funded the trip because they are committed to investing in high-impact educational practices they believe will enable long-term student success.


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