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TLI Profiles Jennifer Retherford

Jennifer RetherfordJennifer Retherford joined the Volunteer family in 2012 as a lecturer in Civil & Environmental Engineering after working several years as a structural engineer in Nashville, Tennessee. An Omaha, Nebraska native, Retherford describes her move to Rocky Top as a matter of happy circumstance.

“I don’t know whether I should call it luck or fate or coincidence, but while in Nashville I was in this mindset of working on this advanced degree at Vanderbilt, and I started volunteering at MATHCOUNTS over my lunch breaks with children,” Retherford said. “Soon my one hour lunch breaks became the highlight of my day by working with those children, and I discovered I enjoyed teaching. Then this opportunity at UT opened up, and it just seemed like the perfect fit.”

A perfect fit, indeed. Since joining the Tickle College of Engineering six years ago, Retherford has taught several undergraduate courses in Civil Engineering, as well as the program’s senior capstone design course. She is active with the student chapter of American Society of Civil Engineers, and has participated as a professor for the College of Engineering’s Diversity Pre-College Programs. Retherford also is a big proponent for service-learning in her department. In fact, she recently received the service-learning designation for Senior Design 1, the first course in students’ two-part senior capstone.

The capstone provides a comprehensive, team-oriented experience in which students apply their acquired knowledge and skills toward the solution of an actual problem faced by the local community. Students benefit from the opportunity to work on realistic design problems characterized by real-world constraints, all while completing constant reflections to gain greater insight into the impact of their work.

This service-learning course has really forced our students to get their heads out of the calculations, and help students make broader connections. They’re at the end of their college journey to become civil engineers, and this course helps them realize how their projects are helping real people and making their lives easier and better.”

—Jennifer Retherford

In the course, students complete reflection narratives, host presentations and in some instances hold public forums to learn how to communicate projects’ worth and impact on the community. Retherford believes the course pushes students out of comfort zones and builds a greater awareness of external factors that impact civil engineers’ daily jobs.

“This course helps our students become more aware of the challenges they may face in their daily jobs. Not every project is going to follow textbook or theory, there are always varying obstacles you’ll have to overcome,” Retherford said.

Since this is the first semester of the designated course’s implementation, Retherford is constantly experimenting and asking students’ feedback to help improve the course for current and future students. Although the workload is greater on Retherford compared to other undergraduate courses while she’s working through the course’s logistics, she believes it’s all worth it.

“This course is ultimately more rewarding and a much more valuable experience for our students,” Retherford said. “These are seniors that are about to graduate and enter the real world, so before they leave, this course really brings these students back to the core of civil engineering and understand their impacts on everyday lives. They obviously chose this profession for a reason, and this course hopefully reminds these students why they did.”

This profile was originally published as a Teaching and Learning Innovation (TLI) Faculty Spotlight. Read TLI’s post.