Dr. Deb Besser, chair of civil engineering and director of the Center for Engineering Education, was recently named a 2020 Engineering Unleashed Fellow – one of only 29 people across the nation. The fellowship, which includes funding to advance specific project work at St. Thomas, is awarded by the Kern Family Foundation in recognition of a commitment to developing engineers with an entrepreneurial mindset. The Engineering Unleashed fellowship is part of the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN), which includes 51 partner institutions and more than 3,000 engineering faculty members.

deb besser

Dr. Deb Besser

To understand how Besser challenges her students to appreciate the potential of their profession as a means for advancing the common good for people and communities, consider how she taught them this fall about the new Dale Street bridge. As Besser and a group of engineering students stood atop the bridge spanning across what was once the predominantly Black Rondo neighborhood, she provided historical context. (In the 1950s-60s, much of the Rondo neighborhood was razed to make way for Interstate 94. As a result, over 500 families were displaced, and the remaining halves of the neighborhood were never the same.)

Dr. Don Weinkauf, dean of the School of Engineering, explains that the entrepreneurial mindset requires an engineer to do more than just solve for X. “Engineering is not about roads or bridges, it’s about people. A bridge moves people. A road moves people. If we start thinking about engineering as a people profession, then the value that we’re creating for people is going to be improved,” Weinkauf said. To Weinkauf, Besser is a shining example of the potential of her field. “Deb is a civil engineer with considerable industry experience as well as a professional licensed engineer. She’s also a professional educator … Deb really epitomizes that powerful combination of a different sort of skills that enhance the classroom experience.”

Besser and her team of student researchers and fellow faculty members are focusing on what motivates the engineers of tomorrow, seeking to understand what will ignite in a student an innate curiosity about the larger context of a given project.

Besser wants her students to think in terms of providing value that extends beyond profit, not just to the client but to all stakeholders in the community. “One component of being an entrepreneurial engineer is creating extraordinary value for others … by better understanding the larger community, and by learning about best practices in engaging diverse community stakeholders, we are better able to design with, and for, all people in our communities,” she said. “The Dale Street bridge is a fantastic example of how the community was integrated into the design process. We seek to learn about the intersection of the great work that occurred in project planning, including work by project manager Matt Christensen and artist Mica Anders.

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