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Constructing future engineers

Photo of Senior Lecturer Behzad Fatahi

Behzad Fatahi, photo by Joanne Saad

In summary:

  • Senior Lecturer Behzad Fatahi has been recognised with a UTS Learning and Teaching Citation for inspiring his civil engineering students to be research-oriented, lifelong learners
  • Combining traditional classroom teaching with a multi-faceted education mode, Behzad is developing a research-based computer modelling game to encourage creative and critical thinking

 

Engineering is perhaps one of our most practical disciplines, so it makes sense to apply a teaching model structured around a practical approach. In training the civil engineers of tomorrow to be lifelong learners, Senior Lecturer in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Behzad Fatahi believes the secret lies in engaging students both in and out of the classroom.  

Story: In today’s technologically dependant world, the civil engineering industry is one of the most progressive and vital to our urban environments. As a recent recipient of a UTS Learning and Teaching Citation, Senior Lecturer Behzad Fatahi is an advocate for using varied teaching styles to ensure civil engineers graduate as research-oriented, practical thinkers.

“There’s only a limited extent a student can learn if you only teach them one way. I try to combine traditional classroom teaching with a multi-faceted education mode.”

Students on Kurnell site visits, photo supplied by Behzad Fatahi

This includes taking his students out of the classroom as much as possible. He uses the collapse of Sydney Lane Cove Tunnel as an opportunity for class discussion combined with a site excursion. In 2005 the road above the tunnel began to give way and a nearby three-story building almost collapsed into the affected area. Geological conditions of the site were largely to blame. 

“If you construct something on top of dyke – a soft material that suddenly appears between various strong rocks – that’s a problem. It was one of the contributing factors to the tunnel’s collapse. 

“It’s very hard to find dyke when you’re in the initial stages of building. I take my geology students to Kurnell where there are good examples of it so they can see for themselves what dyke looks like.”

With his main area of practice being ground improvement, Fatahi is using examples that are immediately relevant to Australian students for discussion in class. These include the construction of the Ballina Bypass and the Port of Brisbane as well as our recent natural disasters.

“The issue of flooding is hot news in Australia at the moment, so we discuss soil erosion and how it’s impacted on our flooded towns. When I talk about it everyone really pays attention because they’ve seen it on the news. 

“It’s the same with last year’s Japanese earthquakes and tsunami – at the time we discussed how tsunamis happen and how they impact the ground. We even gave one-minute silence for the tsunami victims; it allowed students to really reflect and ponder further why and how the disaster happened. That’s what you want – you want to learn in different modes, rather than just read PowerPoint slides.”

With the interests and strengths of his 200 students in mind, Fatahi – with help from his PhD students – tailors and allocates different research projects to his ungraduate students after meeting with each of them face-to-face. He reasons that if the student is engaged in the activity, they’ll be inspired to think outside the box and come up with innovative ideas and solutions. 

“I spend time going through the topics to see which ones the students are interested in before they choose one. An added bonus is that some of them are allocated to work with a PhD student, giving them the chance to strengthen their research abilities.”

Students on Kurnell site visits, photo supplied by Behzad Fatahi

Fatahi emphasises strong research skills are just as important, if not more so, as learning disciplinary information. “Innovation comes from discovering what’s already there, doing more research, considering the needs of the industry or public, and combining them with ideas to come up with something new. If you don’t have the skills to carry out good research, you won’t be able to deliver. This is why we really focus on a research-inspired teaching and learning environment.”

Fatahi’s focus at the moment is to develop an advanced computer modelling game to encourage creative and critical thinking, enhance problem-solving skills and develop students’ lifelong learning abilities. 

“Second and third year civil engineering students compete against PhD students to design, for example, a dam. Whoever designs a dam using the least amount of soil in the fastest construction time is the winner. They obviously need to address the safety of the structure and consider the volume of materials being used too.”

Adopting research-based computer games into teaching is a novel concept, but it’s one Fatahi believes is the way forward for a generation consumed by the latest technologies. His citation is testament to how highly regarded his approach to education is. The awards are given for significant and sustained contributions to student learning, student engagement and the student experience, and include a substantial financial contribution as well as industry recognition. 

The success of Fatahi’s teaching methods is also evident in his role as supervisor to civil engineering students’ capstone projects. In the past two years, several of his students have been named best quality capstone, with one also winning a university medal. Another was a Dean's Capstone Presentation Winner.

Fatahi remains modest over the positive feedback to his teaching. “When the students give you good comments and you see them excited about what they’re learning and how it will influence their future, I get excited. These students will not only represent UTS once they graduate, they’ll also represent our civil engineering group.

“The true satisfaction comes from knowing students’ knowledge will be enhanced and that they appreciate my efforts. I can see they’re engaged and that makes me happy.”

Katia Sanfilippo and Rebecca Lawson

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