ONU Geotechnical Engineering Course Dug into Soil-Related Science and Careers

By Ohio Northern University Modified on January 18, 2024
Tags : Academics | Careers | STEM

From the Catacombs of Paris to athletic fields, soil-related science is all around us.

 ONU Geotechnical Engineering Course Dug into Soil-Related Science and Careers

Something many of us don’t consider: behind the likes of every pristine golf course, towering landfill and sprawling cemetery are engineers who test and assess the state of the soil to ensure it continues to safely conform to our intended uses.

A fall 2023 geotechnical engineering course taught at Ohio Northern University introduced students to soil-based engineering and career options.

Under the creative tutelage of Lauren H. Logan, Ph.D., assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, students learned about factors such as liquefaction, drainage, compaction and geomembranes. Their focus was at ground level and below, where we all count on stable foundations — from substance and structural perspectives — to survive and thrive. From a career standpoint, the manipulation and monitoring of soil and other substances underfoot may seem far less glamorous than, say, bridge building and industrial automation, but no less essential to functional society.

The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all,” noted American author and environmentalist Wendell Berry.

Learn more about the student projects

The course culminated in informative “museum exhibits” that were judged by interdepartmental faculty and staff.

One student group’s exhibit examined “secrets under the grave,” which explored burial factors such as soil compaction, decomposition, necroslurry, and contamination. Soil, after all, doesn’t have the advantage of forgetting remains once they’re buried, but must do the job of covering and eventually absorbing them. Cemetery management involves keeping tabs on soil density, erosion and contamination, the latter of which can happen when things such as cosmetics, formaldehyde (used for embalming) and metals (from caskets, jewelry, and even teeth fillings) are introduced to the ground. No material is invulnerable once buried.

Other groups learned about sports field management, which can require knowledge of lawn chemicals, synthetic turf, horticultural practices, and drainage, depending on the sport and facility.

Some students learned about landfill leachate, toxic substances that can come from landfills. Lead, nitrogen, and more can escape and contaminate aquifers, if methods such as clay layers, geomembranes, and filtration substances aren’t used.

Course stems from interest in how humans treat soil around the world

Logan’s deep interest in how humans treat soil is evidenced in part by her travel choices. For instance, a trip to France didn’t just involve the requisite Eiffel Tower experience, but a visit to the Catacombs of Paris, the underground ossuaries that hold the remains of more than six million people. “I like things creepy,” she admitted.

Her regard for such land uses influences her teaching. The fall geotechnical engineering course was the first Logan had taught, and “was a lot of fun,” she said, because, aside from the unusual facts about soil and what we put in it, she was able to teach her students about the importance of environmental preservation and management.

I always remind my students to remember the cultural aspects,” she said. “I’m not telling them culturally what’s right or wrong, but here’s the science. Here’s what happens.” And, here are options that can better protect nature, she explained. For instance, in Western cultures people typically bury their dead. However, burials, a culturally-influenced practice that incorporates tenets of ritualism and religion, can incorporate clay liners in plots, which serve as an effective barrier to contaminate spread. “Tree coffins” are a newer, more environmentally friendly, burial option.

With athletic fields, Logan taught about “the Goldilocks level of compaction” — the just-right level that doesn’t make the ground too hard, nor too soft, which can all cause more player injuries. “Sports is ingrained in our culture. You need engineers to know what to do with those fields and what not to do and how to monitor them,” she said.

Building structures, particularly in earthquake-prone regions, requires engineers to assess the type and viability of soil along with the potential for liquefaction that could cause collapse and landslides.

Logan said her students’ “museum exhibits” were a hit. “I plan to make this a yearly event. This was a pilot year.”

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