August 19, 2004

Program complements Army Corps' new mission

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Long known for building locks and dams, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is switching gears with a little help from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

A new, intensive master's program in water resources and planning, developed by an organization headquartered at SIUC, is available here and at Harvard, The Johns Hopkins University, The University of Arizona and Washington State University. The program will give mid-career engineers the economic, ecological, policy and decision-making skills they'll need to steer the Corps toward an emerging focus on environmental management.

Media Advisory

On-campus Corps students this term are Andrea L. Lewis of Carterville and Sharon L. Weekley of Huntington, W. Va. Reporters may contact them through SIUC's Department of Geography at 618/536-3376.

"The construction era for flood control, navigation and recreation has seen its heyday -- it's ending in this country," said Christopher L. Lant, chair of SIUC's geography department.

"The Corps' new mission takes it into ecological realms: fixing rivers (re-engineering such natural features as meanders, for example), restoring wetlands, managing for water quality. This, in turn, brings it into complex relationships with local entities and groups with competing interests. To fulfill that mission requires people who are trained differently than they once were."

The 30 to 31 credit-hour program includes courses in philosophy, policy, social decision-making, economics, ecology, hydrology and quantitative methods. The engineers will complete half those hours in a single semester on campus, taking the rest as distance-learning courses or as transfer credits from colleges and universities closer to home. An advisory committee made up of members from the Universities Council on Water Resources, an international, 90-member partnership based at SIUC, developed the curriculum.

Having the water resources council "just down the hall" gave SIUC an edge when it came to being chosen as one of the universities that would offer the degree, Lant said. But the old real estate adage -- location, location, location -- proved powerful as well.

"We are centrally located among a large number of the Corps' districts, and we are at the confluence of the continent's major rivers -- they all come together right here in Southern Illinois," Lant said.

Low tuition and a liberal transfer policy also made SIUC attractive, as did the geography department's longstanding strengths in water resources. In addition to housing several water-related associations, the department serves as headquarters for major journals in the field, while its researchers have attracted more than $1 million in grants from such agencies as the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Two of the first four students to enroll in the new master's program -- Kenneth H. Lamkin from the Corps' Louisville District and R. Shawn Phillips from the Memphis District -- started on-campus classes at SIUC last fall.

"We've done a trial run now, so we know what to expect," Lant said. While it all went pretty much as planned, Lant said the initial idea -- for students to take 18 to 21 hours of classes -- is now water under the bridge.

"Fifteen credits of graduate work is really all a human being can do," he said.

Phillips, who took 18 hours, said it wasn't the time so much as the papers. "I had about nine due, and the papers took, on average, in excess of 40 hours each," he said. "Several papers took more than 80 hours. With actual class time and extensive readings, the load on my personal time nearly did me in." Lamkin agreed.

"Juggling a heavy load was difficult, but Dr. Lant and the staff were very open to making the Œsemester' flexible by trying to get reading material available to use before class started and allowing us to take an incomplete in a class if necessary," he said. "Finishing my last paper has been a challenge, trying to fit it all in between work and family obligations -- and sleep." Both men are back at work now, and both say they have been able to apply their new knowledge to the job at hand, though they won't formally finish their degrees until the end of next year.

"Both the courses on hydrology and natural resource economics have been useful to my understanding of how surface water behaves after significant rain events and how we quantify economic damages in civil works projects," Phillips said.

"The environmental law course has been useful from one highly specific perspective: Clean Water Act Section 404 regulatory authority. Even though the Corps has wetland fill regulatory authority and we have a regulatory staff in my district, I was relatively ignorant about their mission prior to this class."

Said Lamkin, "The course work gave me a great background into many of the issues of managing water resources, particularly on a federal level, but also in more local arenas, too. There is much more that I understand about why I and my colleagues here at the Corps do the things we do on a daily basis.

"I am trying to use and spread to my colleagues the Œsystems' concept that was emphasized and also a growing concept within the Corps, that we have to seek out and understand all the ways what we do changes the environmental system we are working in."

Shaping cooperative ventures is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it observes its 150th anniversary in 2019.