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Mannering aims to lead civil engineering program to the top

Purdue’s School of Civil Engineering is ranked among the best in the nation. Just being among the best, however, isn’t quite good enough for Fred Mannering, who became head of the School of Civil Engineering in June. "My goal is to be the No. 1–rated civil engineering program in the country within three to five years," Mannering says.

Purdue civil engineering has a larger-than-life legacy and a history of excellence: Its graduates and faculty have become key figures in everything from the creation of the Golden Gate Bridge and the space program’s lunar module to Hoover Dam and Boston’s Big Dig, the largest, most complex highway project ever attempted in U.S. history.

"I think one of the most attractive things about civil engineering is the impact it has on society," Mannering says. "It’s been said that civil engineers build civilizations—the urban centers, the water and transportation systems—the big impact is really quite appealing."

Mannering counts himself among Purdue civil engineering’s more than 11,000 living graduates. He earned a master of science degree in civil engineering from Purdue in 1979 and a doctoral degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983.

Purdue’s undergraduate and graduate civil engineering programs are ranked third and fifth, respectively, by U.S. News & World Report magazine. Alumnus Rosser Edwards says he knows why. "Purdue instilled in us the ability to innovate," says Edwards, who in 1971 founded the California firm Webcor Builders Inc. with fellow Purdue civil engineering alumnus David Boyd.

Webcor and one of its major competitors in California, Charles Pankow Builders Ltd., have a long list of construction accomplishments, including Oracle Corporation’s gleaming headquarters in Silicon Valley, built by Webcor, and Pankow’s Gateway Center transportation complex in downtown Los Angeles.

"One obvious advantage to working in civil engineering is that you are able to work on projects that are very large, highly visible and have an effect on a lot of people," says Robert Law, vice president of estimating for Pankow.

Law and that company’s founder, Charles Pankow, also are Purdue civil engineering graduates. Pankow employs 25 Purdue alumni, 24 of them engineers, representing 35 percent of the company’s engineers.

Edwards said a major factor making Webcor and Pankow more competitive than many firms is that they do not have to subcontract as much work as other companies. "I think the key to both of our companies is that we do our own structural concrete work," Edwards said. "Most companies will subcontract out the structural concrete, just like they will subcontract out the electrical or plumbing."

He says the companies are able to be more eclectic, in large part, because of the excellent education many of their engineers have received at Purdue. "We received a good foundation at Purdue," Edwards said. "You get classes in reinforced concrete, structures, those types of things. So you feel comfortable working in these environments and you don’t have to hire a specialist."

Together, Pankow and Webcor have shaped the skylines of cities from California to New York, building everything from office towers and luxury condominium complexes to parking garages and shopping malls. And they’re only two of thousands of Purdue graduates who are building the world’s infrastructure.

But just because Purdue civil engineering has reason to boast, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. The school is in the midst of a campaign to raise $21 million, with much of that money going toward a new "high-performance large-scale laboratory."

The lab, which is tentatively scheduled to open in 2004, will cost about $9 million to build and another $6 million to equip. It will house huge hydraulic presses and other equipment to test structures and materials for buildings and bridges. The new facility will provide up to six times more space for large-scale testing and will help the university recruit the best students and researchers, says Julio Ramirez, a professor of civil engineering who chaired the planning committee for the lab.

It will make Purdue a national leader in areas including earthquake design, materials research, and issues related to the performance of buildings and other structures, such as bridges. Only a

handful of universities in the United States have facilities like the large-scale lab planned for Purdue, says Robert Frosch, an assistant professor of civil engineering who was involved in planning for the facility.

"We will have the best lab in the country," Frosch says.

The lab will benefit companies like Pankow and Webcor by enabling them to carry out critical testing at Purdue.

"Charlie [Pankow] was one of the first people, I think, to suggest the idea for the lab when we were looking for locations to perform the testing of our new seismic moment frame," Law says, referring to an innovative design concept used by Pankow engineers.

While the lab may represent the most visible change on civil engineering’s horizon, it is by no means the only major improvement in the school’s future.

Mannering wants to upgrade other facilities, such as environmental engineering labs, and he also is planning to change the curriculum so that students gain an even better civil engineering education.

"I believe that every civil engineer should have exposure to all of the major areas of civil engineering: construction, environmental, transportation, geotechnical, etc.," Mannering said, noting that such a balanced curriculum was in place decades ago. "We have a very versatile program that has been extremely effective, but we want a system in place to make sure that every graduate takes important core courses in the major subdisciplines of civil engineering.

"Why is it important for undergraduates to take these courses? One Purdue grad told me that he would have done anything to avoid a required environmental engineering course. But in retrospect, a lot of the stuff he deals with involves the environmental permitting process and related matters, so it ended up being one of his most important courses. You don’t know where your career is going to take you."

—Emil Venere