Civil engineering professor to give keynote address at inaugural Educators’ Edition of Engineering Exploration Day

CSU Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Hussam Mahmoud stands in front of an experiment, holding a piece of metal.
CSU Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Hussam Mahmoud stands in front of an experiment in his lab on the Colorado State University campus.

Colorado State University civil and environmental Engineering Professor Hussam Mahmoud will be the keynote speaker for the inaugural Educators’ Edition of Engineering Exploration Day on February 11, 2023.

He recently talked with Engineering Source about how educators could be successful in transitioning their students to college and beyond.

What ways could educators encourage students to explore engineering concepts like resilience?

What they are learning at the K-12 level in terms of math, science, engineering, and technology blends very well with the big problems that we’re trying to solve. We look at structural behavior, resilience, sustainability, and societal recovery following extreme events, including earthquakes, wildfires, and other natural hazards.

The beauty is that while what we work on may seem like pure structural engineering, we really do address societal problems. At the very core, what we do is critical for saving lives and for communities to be able to recover.

Your wildfire research, and which structures may or may not be damaged, could directly have an effect on a student’s life. What is an example of teaching K-12 students to make the connection between learning engineering and its real-world impact?

Even for young students, we had to teach them about COVID and the way disease spreads — you have to wash your hands, you might be infecting somebody, you have to wear a mask – and that translates directly to wildfires and community resilience research.

We used that concept and we started to think, how do people analyze disease transmission? How do we identify the weak links within communities as far as disease transmission goes?

We said, okay, we’ll use the concept of disease spread for wildfire. We started from there and we were very successful in developing a model that can actually predict wildfire damage to communities. So those young students in schools can understand the concept of wildfire spread in the same way they understand disease and resistance to transmission. If a building is vulnerable, you don’t want that building to be close to the next building because it is likely to catch fire. So there are simple ways to make those connections.

How do educators address concerns that students are not coming into college with the full understanding of complicated math and other STEM concepts?

We do see a clear problem, and it exists not just at CSU but across the country. Mathematical abstracts are very difficult for many people. Math is a language that is similar to music. If the students get really used to speaking and listening to this language, their progression into the subject becomes very easy.

One of the most important ways to teach any topic is to turn it into a story. The story has to be compelling enough that you can write on a piece of paper, but then you also have to teach it to the students. I think we could do that at a very early age, and teach them the talent of turning any story into mathematical equations.

The problem right now is that we don’t teach math like this. I took classes myself when I was a child and I had to deal with the same issue. A teacher walks in and says that we’ll talk about polynomial equations. But I don’t want them to talk about equations that way. I want them to write a story and show me how these polynomial equations relate to the story.

If we get students to master this idea, I think we can do wonders.

How do students from outside the U.S. learn math? What new methods could be successful here?

Other countries often choose a sit down, study, solve method. This will provide the student the ability to solve mathematical equations. But many of the students probably don’t know what they are solving until they get much older. It’s not necessarily an effective way to teach. They are often good at writing an equation, but do not have the motivation to be creative.

We need both. And I think the key is to use the story approach. What can we do to make the students excited about learning through a story? Just seeing it on a blackboard or a piece of paper, it’s still too abstract.

Since we’re not going to be grading stories on pieces of paper, then the question is can we use something that takes a big idea and translates it into something like virtual reality? We sit down and we write all the equations and formulas from our story. Then could we play with virtual reality to see how would we change different parameters? When I change this or that parameter, what happens?

What would you find successful in STEM and engineering education moving forward?

I’m a firm believer, one million percent, that anybody can be an engineer. When somebody says, ‘I don’t feel like I can be an engineer, it’s just too challenging,” it’s not. It’s just you were taught the concept in a way that doesn’t appeal to you.

So that becomes a challenge. We need to develop a really good way to teach students engineering concepts that becomes very easy for them to comprehend. We’re not short on exciting stories and ideas in engineering.

What are you looking forward to with the event?

It’s really exciting to be a part of this. At this point in my career, I’m looking for impact. I’m excited to be part of something that might help the future generation of engineers and potential students that will come to CSU.