FEATURE — Winter 2006
   

 
Professor Kevin Truman has spent two decades working with the Army Corps of Engineers on such projects as the Melvin Price Locks and Dam in East Alton, Illinois. His real-world experience informs his award-winning teaching. Among his awards are a (Missouri) Governor's Award for Excellence in teaching and an engineering school's Advisor of the Year Award.

Head and Shoulders Above

Civil engineering Professor Kevin Truman has built a distinguished career along the University's threefold mission: teaching, research, and service to society.

By Stephen Schenkenberg

There was a single day in 1981 when Kevin Truman's future lay before him. He had just earned a master's degree in civil engineering from Washington University, which followed a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics from Monmouth College and a second bachelor's degree in civil engineering. Truman was approached by his mentor, Philip L. Gould, the Harold D. Jolley Professor of Civil Engineering and then-chairman of the department, with a tailor-made offer: Accept a part-time teaching position here at the University, with the stipulation that you work toward your doctorate concurrently, perhaps at the University of Missouri-Rolla. As Truman considered the offer, he had just one day to accept or decline a full-time job at Monsanto, whose worldwide headquarters were just a few miles away. With some guidance from his wife, Katina, who is now the director of marketing and admissions for University College, he chose to continue his studies.

A quarter-century after selecting path one—teaching in Gould's department on Tuesdays and Thursdays and leaving at 5 a.m. to make Rolla's classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—Truman can be more than confident in the soundness of his decision. At a ceremony this past summer, capping a 21-year teaching career at the University, Truman was named the Albert P. and Blanche Y. Greensfelder Professor of Civil Engineering.

Professor Truman; Nina Sass (left), Engineering Class of '08; and engineering graduate student Gus Terlaje perform a compression test on a concrete cylinder to determine the compressive strength of the concrete.

Professor Gould, whom Truman succeeded as department chair, recalls his early recognition of his young student's gifts. "It was clear from the outset that Kevin was above most in his approach to his studies," Gould remembers. "I think it's the maturity and seriousness that he brought, as well as being a very nice, trustworthy person—and almost immediately someone who would be a very good faculty colleague in the not-too-distant future."

Truman's distinguished career includes notable contributions to research. Among his focuses are engineering mechanics, earthquake engineering, structural analysis and design, steel structures, and the analysis and design of massive concrete structures such as dams and intake towers. Much of his work in this last area has been with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), with whom he's collaborated since his first years of teaching. Truman has spent two decades working with the Corps on projects like the Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Mississippi; the Melvin Price Locks and Dam in East Alton, Illinois; and the Portuguese Arch Dam near Ponce, Puerto Rico.

For the Melvin Price project, Truman and his research team and USACE peers developed a process called NISA, an acronym for nonlinear, incremental (construction) structural analysis. The usual method for constructing lock walls at the time—the late 1980s—was to place cofferdams around the structures and pump the water out of the area to work in a dry environment. Truman's team explored a new process of placing sheet pile walls with water inside and outside the system, and placing a special type of concrete called "tremie concrete" inside the sheet pile enclosure. Their research provided critical recommendations on insulation requirements, concrete mix designs, seasons for placement, strength of sheet piles needed for underwater construction, and different construction sequences to minimize cracking of the concrete structure during construction. Since its development, the NISA process has saved USACE more than $100 million and has doubled the life expectancy of the structures analyzed and designed.

For the more recent Portuguese project, Truman—joined by Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville Professor Kerry Slattery—developed a software package, "Arch Dam Layout Program: 1, 2, or 3 Center Arch Dams." The time-saving package, used with the computer-aided design application MicroStation™ to perform the geometric layout of arch dams directly on the contours of a canyon wall, utilizes four computer windows in a simultaneous means for laying out these dams.

"The initial geometry must guarantee stability, strength, proper embedment in the canyon walls, and continuity between sections of the dam," Truman explains. "A change in one of these areas can drastically affect another. That means the software allows the designer to instantaneously see the effects of a change on the other key design features." Once the geometric layout is complete, the software generates an input file that is sent to an analysis program to perform a complete stress and stability analysis. "Before this software was developed, the layout was done by hand and often took two to three months," Truman says. "Now, the software allows the design to try numerous variations in less than a day."

One specific area where Truman would like to see progress made regards materials. "In civil and structural engineering, we're in need of new materials," he says. "Early in my career, a lot of work still needed to be done on software analysis and using computers to solve very complex problems. I think we have the computing power now. What we need is a better understanding of materials, and in particular the production of new materials for structural systems."

Truman's career also includes notable contributions to teaching. He describes his own approach to leading a lecture or lab in fairly simple terms. "I've always lived by the philosophy to treat the students the way that I would like to be treated," he says. "As a student, I always wanted to be challenged, and to learn, and to have an effective mentor in front of the classroom."

David Petruska, B.S.C.E. '87, M.S.C.E. '88, D.Sc. '91, who was Truman's advisee for seven years and now works for BP America, says of Truman: "There are plenty of professors who possess extreme knowledge, but few can transfer that knowledge to their students as effectively as Kevin."

In Professor Gould's words, Truman showed "a rare gift" for teaching even in his graduate school days and continues to maintain a very high level. "He's always prepared," Gould says. "His style is very appealing to students. And along with the teaching, he's been a selfless adviser to scores of students."

For Truman, whose teaching awards include the 1996 (Missouri) Governor's Award for Excellence in teaching and the 1995-96 Advisor of the Year Award, it is critical to be able to advise students on how engineering exists in the world off campus. "I wanted the practical experience with the Corps of Engineers so I wouldn't short-change the students," he says.

"I've always lived by the philosophy to treat the students the way that I would like to be treated," Truman says. "As a student, I always wanted to be challenged, and to learn, and to have an effective mentor in front of the classroom."

A third component to Truman's professional arsenal is community outreach. Since 2002, he has been a co-principal investigator—with departmental colleague Shirley Dyke, the Edward C. Dicke Professor of Engineering—for LEAP, or Learning through Engineering and Applied Science Partnership. This program, funded by an initial $1.45 million grant from the National Science Foundation, sends engineering fellows into area K-12 classrooms to communicate their excitement about science, mathematics, and engineering through hands-on experiments and activities. In the past four years, more than 15 fellows have taught 1,200 sixth- and eighth-grade students at Gateway Middle School in St. Louis and Steger Sixth Grade Center in Webster Groves.

While the program's primary beneficiaries are the students and their teachers, Truman points out that the University fellows are reaping rewards well beyond the stipend and tuition waiver they receive. "We want them to grow in their communication skills," he says, "so that they are able to take very complex ideas and concepts and break them down to a grade-school or high school level."

Recent LEAP fellow Tony Hurd, B.S.C.E. '04, M.S.C.E. '06, spoke directly to the advantages of the program. "Now that I'm practicing as a structural engineer in Denver, I realize that Professor Truman and the LEAP program were especially instrumental in developing my communication and leadership skills," he says. "The program puts you in front of dozens of eager sixth- and eighth-graders, and you must be able to effectively teach complicated engineering material at a level that the students and non-engineering teachers can easily understand. In my work now, I am constantly required to explain my structural design to contractors, architects, clients, and other people without engineering experience. I'm grateful that I got to see students discover an interest in math and science. And the program made me a better engineer."

LEAP was recently awarded a five-year Track II grant from the National Science Foundation, which will enable approximately six students per year to be fellows for 10 hours a week, serving as role models and mentors to curious minds at two newly added institutions, Metro High School and the Construction Career Center. Truman's goals for the program include moving toward grant-independent sustainability—perhaps with corporations matching their support to graduate fellows who are specializing in their specific fields—and increasing the focus on globalization. "With every class, we are trying to incorporate an element where they make a link to another class in another country," Truman says. He believes that much can be learned from the different ways classes in Japan and Chile would approach earthquake engineering.

As the 2006-07 academic year began, Truman had just met with the semester's five new LEAP fellows. "I told them, 'You will be treated like gods and goddesses,'" he recalls. "These young students thoroughly enjoy taking what science and math they know how to do and turning it into a real project. When you see their minds working on hands-on projects, and you see the smiles on their faces when they see the end results, it's pretty special."

Stephen Schenkenberg is a free-lance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin.