Paying it Forward: USACE Engineers Serve as Mentors, Guest Lecturers
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education is more than a passing trend for Derek Maxey and Don Whitmore, two registered professional engineers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Huntington District. Both quietly volunteer as guest lecturers at local universities, bringing their real-world experience and stories from the field to undergraduate students. Maxey, a mechanical engineer and Whitmore, a civil engineer, are committed to inspiring and mentoring tomorrow's engineers, they said.
In the 1990s, Maxey attended one of the Corps outreach events when he was in high school. It was then that he was exposed to the Corps missions and its value to the nation, he said.
"I interacted with many Corps personnel who were eager to describe the work they did and in that single day, I knew engineering was for me," said Maxey, a 2003 graduate of Virginia Tech.
Registered professional engineer, licensed attorney and Virginia Tech alumna Betsy Dulin, a professor at Marshall University's Weisberg Division of Engineering, invited Maxey and Whitmore, a graduate of West Virginia University Institute of Technology, to lecture during a construction management course she teaches. Maxey and Whitmore presented on the topic of cost engineering.
Both work as senior cost engineers in the Dam Safety Modification Mandatory Center of Expertise in the Hydrology & Hydraulics and Technical Support Division.
Cost engineering, according to the Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering, employs engineering judgment and expertise in the application of scientific principles to business and program planning, cost estimating, and economic and financial analysis.
"In a class like this, there's only so much you can get from a book," said Dulin. "We've talked about bidding, fixed pricing, cost plus pricing, labor rates, but to see and hear about it in action, from professionals who deal with these things every day, it's really helpful for the students. I don't think there is a better substitute for a class that's supposed to be about managing construction than interacting with people who truly have the expertise," she said, "and the Corps has always been a really good partner for us."
Dulin also thinks it's beneficial for students to get an idea about the breadth and depth of projects the Corps executes, she said.
"I've shared with students that most of us, in our careers, will not work on projects that are as big as the ones the Corps undertakes so it's important for (the students) to know those immense projects are out there if that's what they aspire to work on."
Maxey said it's also necessary to share with students that they'll need to develop strong business
acumen and leadership skills, too.
"The reality is not every engineer will work on design. Sure you need to understand the formulas, the concepts; you have to have that technical base down, but the key, too, is understanding that the day you get hired by an employer, you start a whole new education process. You have to look for those leadership opportunities and continually be improving your organization," said Maxey, who began working at the Huntington District as a student aide in 1999 shortly after he graduated from high school.
One future leader in the construction management course Maxey and Whitmore guest lectured was Dennis Mayo, a cadet working toward becoming a commissioned officer in the U.S Army Reserve. Mayo is a senior studying civil engineering at Marshall and has previously served as a firefighter, paramedic and enlisted combat engineer. Upon graduating from college and receiving his commission, Mayo will become an engineer officer. Of all the students, Mayo had the most questions for the guest lecturers.
"I'm graduating in May, so obviously I am really interested in learning as much as possible from professionals in the field about forecasting, estimates, scheduling, assessing risks," said Mayo. "Hearing their perspective, it really gives you an idea about where engineering can lead you."
Maxey has inspired other young engineers, too. Engineers like Andrew Loudermilk who as a senior, participated in a course guest lectured by Maxey. A 2008 graduate of West Virginia University Institute of Technology, Loudermilk now works for the Huntington District, primarily performing cost estimation.
"Having actual (practitioners) come to the classroom helped me understand what would be required of me after school and what happens when you use the knowledge gained from your schooling for practical applications," he said.
Of his job with the Corps, Loudermilk said that working as a public servant to help make life better and to protect the public, is something he much prefers rather than worrying about profits, although he still is a good steward of the government's resources.
This is a sentiment Maxey echoes.
With cost engineering, you really are trying to get to the most efficient and effective price, he explained. His greatest cost-savings achievement includes a time his research and calculations saved taxpayers approximately $1.5 million on a project.
"When I was in school, there weren't dedicated courses to cost engineering, so the knowledge I gained came from on the job training with mentors here at the Corps," said Maxey.
Whitmore and Maxey said they'd like to continue guest lecturing and are grateful for the support of supervisors, including Pat Morgan and Shane Hall."
When he thinks about his own career, Maxey recalls those many USACE employees who have encouraged him. As a teenager, Maxey participated in the local Engineering Explorers group then led by now-retired USACE engineer Dave Meadows and Tammy Conforti, who now serves as the levee safety program manager for USACE in Washington D.C.
"I believe strongly that we will always need a steady supply of highly-capable, highly-qualified engineers and it's not just up to professors to inspire the next generation of professionals. It requires participation from engineers in private industry and engineers in public service too," Maxey said.