The University of Texas at Tyler Magazine - Spring 2011
Mentoring Future Engineers
Specialist Brings Extensive Experience to UT Tyler Classroom
Dr. Peter Rogers says his sanity was questioned back in 1997 when he left his comfortable job as a civil engineer to become a Peace Corps volunteer.
Employed with a firm about 100 miles from his hometown of Arvada, Colo., he designed, inspected and supervised the construction of bridges for the railroad industry in the United States and Canada. He joined the firm in 1995 as a mid-level engineer and was about to be promoted to senior engineer when he decided to leave.
“It was a good job and my dad thought I was nuts for leaving, but I wasn’t working in water resources, which is something I always liked, and serving in the Peace Corps was something I always wanted to do. I was thinking, if I don’t do it now, when will I ever do it,’’ he said, explaining he wanted to join before getting married and starting a family.
Joining the Peace Corps to improve the quality of life for the people of Honduras, he applied his expertise in civil engineering, with a specialty in water and wastewater systems, to bring into homes one of the most essential elements of life: water.
It was the best job he’d ever had – in terms of fulfillment
“We were building systems in villages that never had a water system, where women and children were spending three or four hours a day hiking to and from a creek to draw water that most likely was contaminated. And now they had fresh water from a faucet in their homes. Women would break down into tears, telling me how their lives had changed for the better now that they weren’t spending hours retrieving water and how their families were no longer getting sick from water contamination,’’ Dr. Rogers recalled. “I’d never felt as good about the work I did.’’
After two years in the Peace Corps, he remained in Honduras an additional four years working as a water and sanitation specialist in both rural and urban communities. During that time he served as national supervisor of the United States Agency for International Development’s Hurricane Mitch rural reconstruction program and worked with a variety of other organizations including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
He returned to the states in 2003 to pursue another passion: teaching.
Today Dr. Rogers serves as an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Tyler, using his extensive knowledge and experience to prepare civil engineering students to create solutions. Civil engineers plan, design, build and maintain infrastructures essential to daily life, from water reservoirs and treatment plants to buildings and transit systems.
And he continues contributing to water and sanitation efforts in developing countries through his research and service to several international engineering and aid organizations.
Dr. Rogers is a good example of UT Tyler’s outstanding civil engineering faculty and their dedication to teaching, research and public service, said Dr. Ronald Welch, chair of the Department of Civil Engineering.
“Dr. Rogers is known as very tough in the classroom but, at the same time, his passion is that he wants his students to receive the best education possible. And every civil engineering student should graduate with a good understanding of water recourses, because that is one of the major areas in our field,’’ Dr. Welch said.
“He’s also hoping to strike a match to a wick in an individual student to get them excited about the same things he’s excited about, from building water systems in developing countries to improving the management of water resources in our major cities and rural communities,’’ the chair added. “His passion shows through in the classroom and then the students get excited. Some of those students are now working with him in research.’’
A True Mentor
Kourtney Davis graduated in December with a master’s degree in civil engineering and a concentration in transportation and water resources.
She took several classes taught by Dr. Rogers, from water resources planning and management to storm water pollution control. He also was an adviser to her thesis research, in which she conducted a hydraulic analysis of broken-back culverts for the Texas Department of Transportation.
“Dr. Rogers brings a lot of excitement to the classroom and, instead of just teaching from the textbook, he really reaches out to his students in a mentoring way,’’ she said. “And he definitely has an open-door policy. Students feel free to just walk into his office with any question or concern they may have.’’
Clay Hinton is completing his master’s in civil engineering this semester. Working as an architectural engineer before entering the master’s program, he chose structural engineering as his sole concentration for graduate studies. But after learning more about hydrology, it became his second area of concentration.
“Structural engineering is my personal preference, but now I’m also open to water resources type work,’’ he said. “I’ve taken three of Dr. Rogers’ classes and he has really opened up my thoughts to possibilities that I hadn’t previously considered. And a lot of that has to do with his personal interest in each student.’’
Finding His Niche
Dr. Rogers endeavors to mentor students the way he was mentored.
He majored in civil engineering at Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo., a research university devoted to engineering and applied science. He performed well academically, receiving the Mines Medal of Achievement in Mathematics and Science his freshman year, but it took him awhile to find his niche.
“In our program here at UT Tyler, freshmen take a general engineering class with different projects to help them decide what type of engineering they like best. But we didn’t have that when I was in school,’’ he said.
“My first two years, I was taking all these general classes wondering when I’d get to study engineering. And in my junior year, the engineering classes I had were heavy in structural engineering and it didn’t seem fun to me.’’
He considered dropping out of school. But then he took his first water resources-related class and was hooked.
“I took fluid mechanics with Professor Jim Chung, a renowned fluid mechanics expert who had spent many years in industry designing off-shore platforms. And the minute I took that class, I just liked fluid mechanics – I liked water, I liked anything dealing with liquids,’’ he said. “So when I started taking his classes, that’s when I chose my specialty.’’
In 1991, Dr. Rogers completed his bachelor of science degree in civil engineering with minors in engineering mathematics and environmental science. He worked as a design and construction engineer for an airport consulting firm for two years and then accepted an offer from Dr. Chung to become a graduate student and teaching assistant at Colorado School of Mines. Serving as a TA to Dr. Chung paid for Dr. Rogers’ tuition and included a monthly stipend.
Dr. Rogers finished the graduate program in civil engineering, with an emphasis in fluid mechanics, in May 1995 and accepted the job as bridge engineer for the American Association of Railroads’ Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo.
Creating Solutions in Honduras
Dr. Rogers served as a water and sanitation engineer with Peace Corps Honduras in the town of Talanga, located northeast of Tegucigalpa, the capital.
“My first year of Peace Corps, there wasn’t a lot of money to do projects. We’d visit a lot of villages, perform a survey, design and cost estimate and then head to the capital to knock on the doors of different aid organizations in an effort to get money to build projects,’’ Dr. Rogers recalled.
“But after Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in October 1998, funds just came pouring in for projects. There would be two or three organizations competing to sponsor the same water project in the same village,’’ he said.
“So, in my second year in Peace Corps, the United States Agency for International Development was attempting to assess the damage to rural water and sanitation systems in order to identify projects for their reconstruction program. They asked me to visit as many communities as I could and do needs assessments and estimate project costs. I traveled all over the country doing that.’’
The USAID hired Dr. Rogers as a national supervisor in Honduras following his two-year assignment in the Peace Corps. He oversaw the agency’s $15 million rural water reconstruction program that completed more than 1,500 water systems and 40,000 latrines. After running the rural program, he worked in several urban water and sanitation reconstruction programs for more than two years with organizations including the Corps of Engineers.
Making a Difference in Education, Research
Dr. Rogers returned to the states in 2003 and entered Colorado State University in Fort Collins, earning a doctorate in civil engineering with an emphasis in water resource planning and management and a certificate in international development studies in 2006.
Joining the UT Tyler faculty in 2007, Dr. Rogers said one of his main goals as a teacher is to ignite a student’s interest in the subjects he teaches.
“No matter what you study in college, we’ve all had professors that turned us on to a subject, but we’ve also had those who turned us off. So my goal is to turn everybody on to the subjects I teach. And when an undergraduate tells me they want to stay here for their master’s degree and work with me in research, that’s what I like to hear,’’ the professor said.
Stephanie Edmiston was leaning toward the structural side of civil engineering until she took Dr. Rogers’ hydrology class. Taking a strong interest in the subject, she completed her bachelor’s degree in 2009, entered the master’s program with
a concentration in water resources and began assisting Dr. Rogers in a national research project involving water recycling.
After finishing her master’s degree this spring, she plans to become a civil engineering consultant, specializing in water resources. She would like to work outside the United States.
Inspired by Dr. Rogers’ work in the Peace Corps, Edmiston took a missions trip with a church to Liberia, Africa, in 2009 to help build pure water systems and repair water wells on a school campus. “I went because I wanted to experience firsthand what it would be like to work in another part of the world,’’ she said.
In research, she assists Dr. Rogers in a project funded by the Water Research Foundation. Joined by Dr. Neil Grigg atColorado State University, they are investigating the claimed advantages and disadvantages of dual water distribution systems by examining case studies across the country.
“In a way, what we’re doing is groundbreaking because there’s limited research on the performance of dual water distribution systems,’’ Edmiston said. “That’s exciting and makes me want to try even harder to come up with a really good system for assessing these systems.’’
Most utilities supply water through a centralized method. All the water leaving the treatment facility is treated to drinking water standards. Experts question the cost effectiveness of the centralized approach, which treats even non-potable applications such as firefighting and irrigation to the high standards of drinking water. Another concern is that fire protection requires pipes to be larger than what is necessary for drinking water. This can cause water to remain in the pipes long enough to become stagnant and unsafe for drinking.
One proposed solution is the dual water distribution system, in which a single pipe is used exclusively for drinking water with a larger pipe transporting bulk water for non-potable applications. The dual water system saves energy and money, improves drinking water quality and allows water to be recycled for non-potable uses, according to proponents of the system.
With more than 1,000 dual distribution systems in place throughout the United States, the dual system is not a new concept. But a comprehensive assessment of the system’s performance is needed so utilities can make the best decisions for their needs, Dr. Rogers said.
“In theory, there are many benefits to having a dual water system, but no one has ever gone through and done a comprehensive study. That’s what we’re doing in research,’’ added the professor, whose other research includes water pipe failure assessment modeling and water demand forecasting.
Dr. Rogers is on the board of directors for the International Rural Water Association (www.intlruralwater.org), which seeks to improve the quality of water for developing countries. He is active in Engineers Without Borders, serves on Water for People’s program committee and holds leadership roles on several technical committees with the American Water Works Association.
He co-directs a joint community service program with Tyler Junior College, traveling with UT Tyler and TJC students to Costa Rica each May.
But Dr. Rogers generally prefers not to travel far from home these days – unless his family goes with him. He treasures each moment he gets to spend with the most important people in his life – his wife Anabel and their vivacious 2-year-old daughter Allison.