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The GW Hatchet

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Finding fun in engineering: profile of professor W.M. Kim Roddis

Professor W.M. Kim Roddis teaches at GW, but in a way, she instructs students across the nation every day.

Roddis, an expert on civil engineering, developed software that thousands of students use in scores of engineering programs around the nation. She developed a CD in response to her observation that engineers are often visual learners. The program shows animation of concepts and images related to civil engineering. Roddis said about half of the 160 civil engineering programs in the country utilize her animated CD as part of their curricula.

“I felt … if you could just watch (an illustration) once on this little two or five minute clip, it just makes so much more sense,” said Roddis, who became chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering in 2004.

Through the increased use of technology, Roddis said she believes more students will become attracted to the field of engineering.

“There aren’t enough young people that want to go into engineering … and I think one of the reasons for this is that we don’t communicate to young people how much fun (engineering) is,” Roddis said.

From an early age, Roddis can recall her interest in science, architecture and mathematics. Born in Arlington, Va., Roddis moved often. Locales she called home include Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

After graduating from an all-girls boarding school, Roddis attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she quickly recognized her love for engineering, particularly civil engineering.

“Structural engineers have all the fun,” Roddis said. Determined to spark interest in her field, she went on to study civil engineering while eventually earning a bachelors of science, a masters of science and a doctoral degree from MIT.

Because Roddis said she wanted hands-on experience in the field of engineering after graduation, she designed heavy industrial buildings – like power and chemical plants – for four years.

Roddis then spent two years working on general commercial design building schools, offices, hospitals and dormitories, as well as an additional year as a bridge engineer.

“Looking back on it, it worked out great, because if you’re going to teach structural engineers and if you have practical experience – designing and in the field – you’ve got a pretty solid background to feel like you’re giving people not just a textbook education,” Roddis said.

Roddis’ career as a professional academic began with the 16 years she taught at University of Kansas’ School of Engineering, where she was the first woman to earn tenure in KU’s School of Engineering.

“I’m very proud of my time at KU, but the problem was I had done everything I could do there,” said Roddis, adding that her first thoughts of the job opening Roddis later secured at GW compared it to a “puzzle.”

“They were looking for someone who wanted to be chair, they were looking for someone who could teach steel design and they were looking for someone who could do research,” Roddis said.

Last fall, Roddis taught the introductory course to civil and environmental engineering and an upper-level steel design course. She described GW engineering students as “good at engineering … but (what) makes them different is they tend to have broad interests about how engineering affects society,” she said.

“I like building things and building a department is just as much as fun as building a bridge,” Roddis said.

Roddis added that she hopes that her students “wind up being able to learn at a greater depth and … (that) all of them take away the fact they should be enthusiastic about what they’re doing and find something to do that they love.”

Roddis currently resides in Vienna, Va. with her husband, a computer scientist whom she met at MIT, her 17-year-old daughter and her 12-year-old son.

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