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Updated 2:00 PM November 8, 2006
 

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Professor pioneers new pedagogy for civil engineering

MaryCarol Hunter, assistant professor of landscape architecture, sees a disconnect between design and engineering in landscape-architecture education.

So to improve on traditional methods, she is pioneering a new approach for teaching civil engineering to landscape-architecture students in her class.

"Traditionally, the component parts of landscape architecture—art, ecology and engineering—have been taught as separate, isolated subjects," Hunter says. "I believe you have to view them as part of an interconnected system and bring them together by teaching each component in the context of the others."

The advantage of taking a more integrated, interdisciplinary approach to site-engineering course work, she says, is that landscape-architecture students learn early on how to develop the engineering for their own creative designs.

"I've observed that students frequently experience difficulty in trying to make the shift from a purely quantitative engineering base to a broader platform that encompasses ecology and art," says Hunter, who is a licensed landscape architect and holds a doctoral degree in ecology. "When applied math is learned in isolation, they can't reconcile it with the conceptual site design they are trying to develop. And it often takes considerable time and practice to unlearn this isolated approach.

"By using a more integrated approach, however, students are able to join quantitative protocols with the artistry of their own site designs by the end of the course. I believe this happens because they've come to understand civil engineering more viscerally than is possible with conventional teaching methods."

Hunter, who worked as a research ecologist for 15 years before returning to school for a master's degree, presented her new model for site-engineering education during the summer at an international conference of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture in Vancouver, British Columbia. She headed a panel on innovative approaches to teaching engineering to design students.

Hunter's approach is being applied in the site-engineering course she teaches at the University. The innovation focuses on four breaks from tradition.

First, she has altered the typical order of topics taught in site engineering to allow greater emphasis on storm-water management. "If you can understand the path and speed of a raindrop falling from the sky to the local river system, you're equipped to reshape the land for development in a way that's good for humans and good for nature," she says.

Second, she pairs standard problem sets with complex, contextual problems that allow ecology and art issues to surface in the context of conventional engineering solutions.

Third, instead of a final exam, Hunter asks students to do the site engineering for a project of their own design. Last year, they developed site-engineering plans for their individual ecological redesigns of Ann Arbor's West Park.

Fourth, Hunter reinforces the integrated aspects of site engineering with special minilectures on the latest and most effective examples of green-engineered built works that salute art and engineering. She also takes students around the Ann Arbor area to view "green" engineering infrastructure and ecologically sensitive landscape designs.

The benefits of rethinking site-engineering education are significant, according to Hunter.

"Students can bring this integrated approach to subsequent studio courses and be way ahead of the game in terms of professional development when they graduate," she says. "More important, they will be better prepared as landscape architects to develop more creative and sophisticated sustainable designs.

"Prospective employers always go for this because the designs of landscape architects must now comply with an increasing number of regulations stemming from the Clean Water Act."

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