Like many children who grow up to be civil engineers, Kristen Sanford Bernhardt, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and chair of the engineering studies program, loved playing with blocks. That along with an affinity for science and math created the perfect recipe for a career as a civil engineer and professor.
As an undergraduate at Duke University, Sanford Bernhardt concentrated in structural and architectural engineering, but realizing it wasn’t something she wanted to make a career of, she pursued sustainable civil infrastructure systems in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University where she earned master’s and doctorate degrees. It was there that she realized teaching and research were her passions.
“I discovered that I really enjoyed both interacting with undergraduates and doing research,” she explains. “I love that exploring new ideas and learning are part of my job. As my dad says, I get paid to think.”
Lafayette’s focus on undergraduates and providing opportunities for collaborative research with faculty led Sanford Bernhardt to leave her position at a research university to join the faculty almost 10 years ago. The liberal arts education the College provides its engineering students is essential in today’s engineering landscape, she says.
“I wanted to focus on undergraduates and believe that a liberal arts education is crucial to adequately preparing engineers for 21st century challenges,” she says. “The students here continue to impress me with their intelligence and curiosity, and they challenge me to grow as a teacher and a scholar. I am often inspired by my students. They bring different perspectives and fresh enthusiasm.”
Working closely with students on collaborative research and serving as a mentor are by far her favorite aspects of teaching. She has worked with 12 students through the EXCEL Scholars program, and advised 11 students doing independent study research and four students conducting honors research. Undergraduate research allows students to connect their academic work to the real world.
“When a student accomplishes something he or she hadn’t thought possible – getting into a particular graduate program, winning a fellowship, completing a thesis – knowing that I helped in some way to make that dream come true is immensely satisfying,” she says. “I like helping students figure out what they want to do and how to get there and then helping them do it. Students have creative ideas and new approaches that make significant contributions to the work.”
In addition to her teaching and mentoring, Sanford Bernhardt stays busy with multiple research projects. Five Lafayette students have already gotten into the act on one project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and conducted in collaboration with colleagues at Virginia Tech. The project is an exploration of whether agent-based modeling can be used to predict the total cost of ownership for a building in the early stages of design. Three more students will join the team this summer.
She also is working with Sharon Jones, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the engineering division, Jeff Pfaffman, associate professor of computer science, and Chris Ruebeck, associate professor of economics, on another NSF-funded project on using agent-based modeling to explore environmental policy’s impact on sustainability. And to increase student interest in transportation engineering, she is collaborating with colleagues around the country to develop learning outcomes and activities for a typical introductory course in the field.
In addition to mentoring students in a variety of research projects, Sanford Bernhardt has published numerous journal and conference articles. An article she co-authored with Jones and Ruebeck for the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference won the Environmental Engineering Division Best Paper Award. She also co-authored an article with Mary J.S. Roth, associate provost for academic operations, for the ASEE 2004 Annual Conference that won the Glenn L. Martin Best Paper Award. She has presented at conferences throughout the U.S. and abroad. She is an associate member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, serving on its Educational Activities Committee, Infrastructure Systems Committee, and editorial board of its Journal of Infrastructure Systems.