Starting from scratch in civil engineering

Bergeron Centre

The Lassonde School of Engineering celebrated its first class of graduating civil engineering students this past spring, and one of the proudest people on hand was Professor Dan Palermo.

Dan Palermo

The recipient of the 2018 President’s University-Wide Teaching Award in the Senior Full-time Faculty Category, Palermo was the department’s first hire in 2013, and he worked with the department Chair to build the Civil Engineering program from the ground up.

“I’m really happy with where it’s at,” said Palermo, who left the University of Ottawa to accept the position. “It has been a great challenge and experience to help build the program. Every year, we’re adding faculty. We have 13 now and we’ll be up to 16 in January.”

The program’s state-of-the-art laboratories in the Bergeron Centre – specifically the High-Bay Structures Laboratory, known as a focal point of the program – also came to be with the help of Palermo.

“We made a conscious decision that the undergraduate program would include comprehensive labs throughout our courses,” he said. “You can see that when students get into the labs, they get really excited and come alive.”

Palermo recently taught a second-year civil engineering materials course that exposes students to all types of structural materials that they might use on a job. The students are required, for example, to batch different materials and make concrete that they pour into cylinders. Once the concrete hardens, the students conduct compression tests and tension tests.

“They have to follow industry standards and the concrete must achieve a certain strength,” he said. “They do tests so they see how it deforms and ultimately fails. If they are going to design things, they need to know each material’s physical and mechanical properties. These lab tests replicate forces the material might experience in the field.

“Students see that if you design something according to code, this is how it behaves. They get a physical feel for how structures behave when designed properly – or not. It shows how sudden failure can be, happening without warning. These are lessons that they will use their entire careers – tangible lessons.”

The President’s University-Wide Teaching Award came as a “pleasant surprise” to Palermo.

“I was nominated by a colleague, and I was very pleased about that,” he said. “I always had very strong teaching evaluations and I received an engineering faculty teaching award in Ottawa, but receiving a university-wide award has a larger impact. It’s a bit of a compliment, too. It’s an affirmation that my teaching has impact.”

In their letters of support for Palermo’s nomination, students commented on his enthusiasm, clarity and approachability, his ability to connect theoretical with practical knowledge, and his ability to consistently offer real-world examples of theoretical practices.

Palermo enjoys working with students and loves seeing them achieve things they never imagined were possible.

“It’s nice to be able to share whatever knowledge I think I have,” he said. “I’m pretty passionate about the material and I hope I convey that to them.”

During his own schooling, Palermo had good mentors who taught him a lot and he feels good about mentoring the next generation of engineers. He hires second- and third-year students each summer to work in the lab with his graduate students so they can get hands-on experience and exposure to research that may excite them.

The award-winning prof has recently been appointed Chair of Civil Engineering and he says he is “embracing the challenge” and that “it’s good to try new things.”

He is also delighted to be working with such a talented group of professors.

“I look at our faculty and say, ‘It could be any one of you who receives a teaching award.’ I hope they are also recognized eventually.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus