They dig the outdoors

Posted on 29. Sep, 2011 by in Academic Departments, Alumni, Annual Report, Features, Interdisciplinary Degree Programs, Issues, People, Students

Geological engineers live and work for the environment

Sam Freitag

UW-Madison geological engineering alum Sam Freitag

Most of the people who were in the Geological Engineering Program (GLE) with me got involved because we enjoy the outdoors,” says Sam Freitag (pictured). “We liked all the time we got to spend on camping trips for geology and doing outdoor field work, but we also liked the environmentally sustainable aspect of our learning.”

Freitag, who earned his bachelor’s degree in geological engineering in May 2011, is among an increasing number of engineering students who are choosing to major in GLE at UW-Madison.

With its 25-year anniversary approaching in 2013, the Geological Engineering Program has grown from just 18 undergraduates in 2009 to nearly 60 students—with an additional 30 graduate students—in fall 2011.

In part, that uptick in enrollment is due to an updated curriculum and improved marketing that emphasize the societal and environmental benefits of work in the discipline, says Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Geological Engineering Craig Benson. “Realigning ourselves with themes that are very relevant to the future is just a tremendous advantage for us,” he says.

Geological engineers find the best ways to use the earth’s resources to solve technical problems while protecting the environment, and they work in such industries as energy, mining and environmental consulting, among many others.

At UW-Madison, GLE undergraduates can gain technical expertise through one of five technical tracks: energy, minerals and mining; sustainability and the environment; geohazards; groundwater and surface water; and infrastructure. “I like the strong emphasis the GLE program puts on sustainability,” says Freitag, who recently took a job at a new underground mining project near Phoenix, Arizona. “It focuses on being able to use the resources we have in a sustainable, environmentally conscious manner. I try to keep that in mind when I am working, too.”

In addition to a bachelor’s degree in engineering, GLE students also earn a dual degree in geoscience through the UW-Madison College of Letters and Science. “The curricula naturally complement each other,” says Benson.

Douglas Dettmers, who earned his dual bachelor’s degrees in 1997, has spent his entire career working in the geotechnical engineering field and now is a regional manager with Gestra Engineering of Milwaukee. He says the cross-departmental GLE curriculum enabled him to add skills that have benefited his career. “There was a real range of options for the upper-level elective courses and I had the ability to select classes during my undergraduate program that specifically applied to my future employment,” says Dettmers. “The non-elective courses, which included geology, hydrogeology and geotechnical courses, exposed me to a broad range of technical issues. I find that I often refer to some of the reference material from these courses when I encounter non-typical conditions.”

At UW-Madison, GLE students receive the kind of broad education that enables them to bridge boundaries between engineering and the natural sciences. And GLE students themselves are entering with a richer diversity of backgrounds, thanks in part to Research Scientist Sabrina Bradshaw. A GLE alumna who serves as the program’s undergraduate recruiter, Bradshaw manages the GLE undergraduate research program and talks about GLE with students at the university’s freshman orientation program.

Currently, nearly 50 percent of GLE students are women. “Sabrina is a role model who is bringing different people into the program,” says Benson, who also sends a personal letter to every entering engineering student. “We’re going to have a diverse workforce everywhere and there’s great value in diversity of ideas. That’s very important, and I want to embed this in the GLE program for the future.”

Megan Jehring, a senior who is planning to pursue a master’s degree in geological engineering, chose GLE because it combined her interest in geology and her desire to pursue a field that involved using math skills. “I really enjoy how widely applicable the major is to society, such as construction and environmental issues,” she says.
An active member of the UW-Madison student chapter of the Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists, Jehring says she appreciates the GLE program’s close-knit feel. “The program is very diverse, but also very welcoming,” she says. “The faculty, staff and students make up a supportive community that feels more like family. I’ve made many connections that have helped me gain internships and recommendations for grad schools and careers in industry.”

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