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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to celebrate 175 years of civil engineering

TROY, N.Y. — On Oct. 14, 1835, scientist and educator Amos Eaton posted a notice informing faculty and students at the fledgling Rensselaer Institute about the awarding of a new degree: civil engineering. It was the first civil engineering degree awarded in the United States. On Oct. 14-15, 2010, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute celebrated the 175th anniversary of civil engineering at the university. The festivities, taking place as part of reunion and homecoming weekend, looked back at the world-changing innovations of the Institute’s civil engineering graduates and faculty, and looked forward to the challenges awaiting today’s civil engineering students.

“Rensselaer has always been ahead of the pack. Its leaders have always been able to foresee the needs of the nation and world, and create programs to give students the knowledge and tools to solve these problems looming beyond the horizon,” said Tarek Abdoun, class of 1997, professor and acting department head of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rensselaer. “Civil engineering is no exception. From Washington Roebling, class of 1857, engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, to George Ferris, class of 1881, inventor of the Ferris wheel, to our current students, Rensselaer has made an immeasurable impact on the history of humanity.”

As part of the celebration weekend, the 175th anniversary of civil engineering colloquy took place at 10 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 15, in the concert hall of the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). Titled “The Civil Engineering Revival: Challenges, Grand Challenges, and Champions,” the colloquy featured Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson and G. Wayne Clough, 12th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and president emeritus of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Dean of Engineering David V. Rosowsky introduced the colloquy, and Kathy J. Caldwell, national president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), gave a special presentation following the colloquy.

David P. Billington, one of the world’s foremost civil engineering experts, delivered the keynote address at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 15, in EMPAC’s Goodman Studio 1. Billington is the Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor of Engineering, Emeritus, in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Princeton University. His keynote address, “Building the United States 1835-2010: Bridges, Dams, and Civil Engineering Education,” explored the history of civil engineering at Rensselaer and looked in-depth at the construction and impact of many major works by several storied Institute graduates.

At 2 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 14, Rensselaer’s School of Engineering presented the prestigious 2010 Davies Medal Award to James K. Mitchell ’51. In his presentation, “Soil Mechanics to Geotechnical Engineering: 60 Years in the Evolution of a Discipline,” Mitchell explored how geotechnical engineering plays a vital role in solving present and future problems in both constructed and natural environments. Also on Oct. 14, the Folsom Library held a reception for its latest art exhibit, “Re-Inspired, An Artistic Navigation of the Erie Canal,” which combines engineering and art into a creative account of the development of the Erie Canal.

Abdoun delivered his State of the Department Address at 9 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 15, in EMPAC’s Goodman Studio 1. He discussed research projects led by Rensselaer faculty and students that are reshaping the field and practice of civil engineering.

See Amos Eaton’s 1835 Notice of the Civil Engineering Degree at www.lib.rpi.edu/dept/library/html/Archives/early_documents/ce_notice.html.