Desert Rams, Mark Twain, and Real-Life Looney Toons

March 16, 2016

There are very few syllabi that warn students to watch out for desert rams…but Dr. Warren Campbell’s is one of them! Every year since 2012, Dr. Campbell has taken a group of WKU civil engineering students on the Total Immersion Floodplain IMG_0510Management Study Away trip. This winter term, department head Dr. Julie Ellis, Professor Jason Wilson, and Dr. Campbell led a group of 18 students across the American Southwest. One student from the University of Vermont even joined the group, after reading about the unique experience online. The trip included stops in La Jolla, Encinitas, Borrego Springs, Las Vegas, Santa Clarita, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and Hoover Dam. At all of these sites, students were able to learn about historical flood control successes and failures, while gaining important new experiences and exploring the natural beauty of the Southwest.

Students hiking up the debris flow

The group often woke up to the sight of desert rams grazing outside their window, and Dr. Campbell reports seeing coyotes and roadrunners nearly every day of the trip. A dream come-true for Looney Toons fans, the experience was also special for several of the students who had never in their lives been on a plane or ventured west of the Mississippi River. Traveling to see this different area exposes students to a whole new terrain with an arid climate that gives civil engineers an important, new perspective. Dr. Campbell states that the theme of the trip can be described with a Mark Twain quote: “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.” While difficult to fully understand here in Kentucky, the dry climate of the Southwest makes Twain’s statement quite relatable. In an area where water is so scarce, drastic measures must be taken to ensure that homes and farms have the water that they require. After all, it affects not just those areas themselves, but the whole country—California provides 60% of all produce to the US. Dr. Campbell believes that this trip offers students an important opportunity to see measures that have been taken to control water in the Southwest—measures that someday may need to be taken here as well. As future civil engineers, the students will be working on projects like these, such as Hoover Dam.

While Dr. Campbell particularly enjoyed hiking up the debris flow in Borrego Springs this year, Hoover Dam is always a favorite site of the students. Much different from simply learning about flood control in a classroom, students get to actually stand in front of one of the largest dams in the US. With overflow spillways large enough to hold a battleship and a staircase named the “Stairway to Hell,” the sheer size of Hoover Dam provides an important teaching moment to students.

Hoover Dam PFT
PFT compared to the size of Hoover Dam

No longer complaining about their hike up the Pearce Ford Tower stairs on campus, students were astounded by this hands-on learning opportunity. In addition to the chance to view projects similar to those they will complete one day, students got to learn a little bit about the politics behind flood control, as well. By proposing a possible project to “the mayor” played by Dr. Campbell, students were able to try on the shoes of a professional in their field.

Another important assignment of the trip is a journal that students keep throughout their journey. They document learning experiences, photographs, and personal reflections on their excursions. One student even recounted his frightening experience with a large tarantula after he chose to take a break from hiking so as to avoid getting himself “into a wheelchair” on the first day of the trip. For other students, hiking on the fault scarp was a highlight, and many more felt that seeing Hoover Dam was the most impressionable aspect of the trip. From taking pictures by huge dragon statues in the desert to learning about how cliff erosion can decrease the property value of million-dollar homes, there was a new experience for everyone on the trip.

Just as photographs of Hoover Dam cannot truly convey its impressive size, one single story cannot paint a complete picture of this unique study away experience. Last Winter term, students visited many more sites and gained many more experiences than those mentioned above. Truly an eye-opening trip for those who had never explored the Southwest, students learned a great deal that can be applied to their future careers as engineers—and to their lives in general. Even Dr. Campbell, who has been on the trip for several years, learns something new each time and is passionate and eager to share about his experience with the Total Immersion Floodplain Management trip.IMG_0542

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