Engineering professor, students take classroom to the beach

February 13, 2002
| By: Aubrey Bloom

COLLEGE STATION -- Dr. Dan Cox's coastal engineering students at Texas A&M University get more than theory from him --- they get sand between their toes. And with the university about 100 miles from the coast - even further from beaches - that means a road trip. But even that fits the course. "A beach is like a highway," said Cox, an associate professor in Texas A&M's Department of Civil Engineering. "Beaches need regular maintenance, steady repair, so that people can keep using them." Beach use is important in Texas. State beaches bring in more than $7 billion in annual tourism income, but Texas has one of the highest rates of beach erosion of any coastal state in the nation. The core of Cox's coastal engineering course is its design project. In 2001, students teamed up to design a system of structures to slow sand loss - estimated at 4 feet per year -- for a beach in Corpus Christi, Texas. Students conduct field and wading surveys, collect soil samples and work with the same real-time data and other professional tools as engineering firms hired to deal with erosion problems. Working out coastal problems is more than just the engineering, Cox said, and that's why he likes to bring real-life elements into his mix of classroom lecture, web technology and beach visits. "Students learn an awareness of the impact of solving engineering problems," Cox said. The students learn about state agencies that govern beaches, how fisheries fit in, the role of tourists, the recreational sporting groups that have concerns and the part played by environmental groups. Texas A&M senior Jacqueline Gutierrez said engineers typically think just about physical problems. Yet, faced with a real problem such as the Corpus Christi beach, students learn they have to think about the community as well, the Fort Worth resident said. "This is just a more realistic approach to learning about coastal engineering," she said. For Aaron Horine, getting a first-hand look at the beach and meeting with coastal engineering firms convinced the Alvin, Texas senior he was on the right career track. "You get a real feel for what coastal engineering projects involve," Horine said. "The biggest surprise was all the politics and public relations involved in actually doing a project." Cox's class spent two days in Corpus Christi researching the beach and meeting members of coastal engineering firms Shiner Moseley and Associates Inc. and Goldston Engineering Inc. "I want students to come away with a real feel for how their engineering decisions can impact a beach, and how many views they have to consider when making those decisions," Cox said. 02/13/02 NR 976

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