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Geological engineering grad student: Teaching others through rocks and soil

Erica Hagen

Geological engineering master's student Erica Hagen

"I feel like what we do affects so many people, because at the heart of anything you build, it needs to have a good foundation," says Erica Hagen. "We design that foundation. That is a really powerful idea."

Now a graduate student in geological engineering, Hagen first came to UW-Madison as an undergraduate intending to major in chemical engineering.

However, after attending an info session about geological engineering, Hagen says she was hooked. "The fact that you can get a double major with geoscience with only a few additional classes made the switch all the more attractive," she says. "The flexibility of the undergraduate curriculum allowed me to take courses that interested me from both departments. I took the opportunity to take all the geology classes I could without missing out on the core geological engineering design courses. All in all, my undergraduate career was a good mix between the two."

As a participant in the UW-Madison Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, Hagen developed a passion for research. Working under her current graduate advisors, she spent a summer using geophysical methods to identify lake sediments. "I learned all about what Lakes Mendota and Monona look like on the bottom, while falling in love with some of the geophysical techniques I still use in my research," she says.

With funding from the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, Hagen currently is studying bluff stability and the effects of shoreline protection structures along the Lake Michigan coastline. "I am using geophysical methods to observe the layer structure of these high bluffs and then analyze their stability while monitoring changes in the bluff since these stabilization projects were installed," she says. "What interests me is that I can use a geophysical method to analyze an engineering problem in a geological setting ... and the view while I am collecting my data isn't bad, either!" 

Erica Hagen doing shoreline research

Hagen is studying bluff stability and the effects of shoreline protection structures along the Lake Michigan coastline.

Hagen, who participates in geological engineering advising sessions, conveys her enthusiasm for geological engineering to undergraduates as a teaching assistant for the soil mechanics course weekly lab session. She's also developing a YouTube channel for hosting supplementary course material. "My students often say that they can tell how much I love the subject and that it makes class more fun," she says.

It's no surprise that Hagen hopes to become a professor so she can teach subjects such as soil mechanics, slope stability and soil physics to new generations of civil, environmental and geological engineers. "I am very passionate about teaching, and especially so about improving engineering education in a way that excites students about innovative problem-solving," she says.

When she graduates in December 2011, Hagen first may look for a job in the public sector, a state natural resources agency, or a coastal management program. Such a position, she says, would enable her to apply her UW-Madison education in environmental and regulatory settings.

Ultimately, however, Hagen's career will be about everyone else. "Working with people and teaching are my main goals," she says. "And rocks and soil are my medium of choice." 

Renee Meiller
10/21/2011