Dr. Bruce Berdanier to lead the School of Engineering

He’s a small-town guy with a global view, and Bruce Berdanier, Ph.D., formerly professor and department head of Civil and Environmental Engineering at South Dakota State University (SDSU), is bringing that fresh outlook with him as he takes the helm of the School of Engineering. Just after he arrived in Fairfield last July, he sat down with Fairfield University Magazine to talk about his research, his view for the School of Engineering, and the global outreach he plans to continue at Fairfield.

What sparked your desire to go into engineering?

I grew up on a river in Ohio and did a lot of fishing and swimming. The river was a big part of my life, and I knew I wanted to do something with water resources. In high school, I worked for a civil engineering firm, and realized there are so many areas you can go into with that degree. I focused on water resources engineering in my undergraduate years, then environmental engineering and hydrogeology for my master’s and Ph.D.

The major focus of my work over the last 10 years or so has been with metals in the environment, and specifically how these metals get into the surface water, and the interactions of various chemical compounds.

You are a civil engineer, yet Fairfield does not have a civil engineering program. Are there plans in the works to develop one?

My belief is that, at the undergraduate level, we should have very strong fundamental engineering programs — like electrical and mechanical. Typically, civil engineering would be part of that mix. Specialty areas should come in at the master’s level.

Creating a civil engineering program is a possibility, but we need to look at the demographics of the area first. If we have too many engineering programs, and if they are too small, our efforts become diffused. We must be clear about defining what our niche will be, and that takes more careful planning at the undergraduate level.

As dean, what will be your main focus in the next year or two?

Once our vision for the School of Engineering is defined, our initial focus will be to stabilize and grow our existing fundamental programs. Our secondary focus will be to build new programs that support our vision. I believe the School of Engineering will be more stable if our program populations are closer to 100 students for each program (doubling the current size in the undergraduate programs). We are seeing a large demand from students who want to study graduate engineering on a part-time basis. That means our faculty can offer more specialized course work at the graduate level.

Another really exciting aspect is the ongoing development of our five-year M.S. degrees. In the past, we had a five-year dual B.S./M.S. degree in software engineering. We just received approval for the five-year dual B.S./M.S. degree in computer and electrical engineering. We are also developing the five-year dual degree program for mechanical engineering and hope to be working through the approval process this year.

The school is initiating the process of moving to Bannow Science Center this summer. The move is fairly complex due to the need for offices and laboratory facilities, along with the intricacies of shifting the SOE computing systems, software, and servers to the space in Bannow and converting to the University network. The space in Bannow will give the SOE a new, modern space that we hope will be very marketable to young students coming into our undergraduate program.

Where do you see engineering education headed within the next ten years?

The National Academies of Engineering maintains a list of the top 10 problems of society that need to be addressed by engineers. Some of these topics (i.e. economical solar energy, health informatics, developing the tools of scientific discovery, cyber security, etc.) may make a lot sense for the SOE to think about this year as we develop our defining vision. Additional important areas (carbon sequestration, clean water access, nitrogen cycle, urban infrastructure, etc.) would require us to look at new directions in the future.

As a school of engineering in a Jesuit liberal arts institution, we have the unique opportunity to ask, “What are the pressing needs in our society?” We have a history of service to the world, and we have to leverage this unique aspect of who we are to potential students. I believe that we need to do a good job of enhancing student interest in engineering and science by letting them know the importance of these subjects in serving society. We also need to emphasize the collaborations of Fairfield scientists and engineers with policy makers and faculty working in other areas.

You have been involved in projects in Haiti. How did you come to be involved there? What were you doing?

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