Raymond A. Cook
Excellence in Teaching
Associate Professor of Civil Engineering
College of Engineering and Physical Sciences
Photographed on July 2, 2004, in his yard with his daughter Ana and son Thomas, West Newburyport, Mass.
“How many golf balls can you fit in a suitcase?”
This question might not seem to have anything to do with civil engineering, but for Associate Professor Raymond Cook, the ability to make the kind of back-of-the-envelope calculations needed to answer it is what separates a good engineer from one who can put you at risk.
When calculating more germane problems, like what size I beam is needed in a roof, a structural engineer can use computers. While computers don’t make mistakes, the people who design and use software do, so Cook makes sure his students can calculate a ballpark figure on their own. If the computer-generated number is out of the park, they will know to go back and recheck the calculations.
“I spend a month on how to rough out numbers because it’s so critical for engineers not to trust the numbers coming out of computers,” says Cook. That’s where huge mistakes can occur. You can kill people in a heartbeat.”
The Hartford Civic Center roof collapse of 1978, for example, was attributed to an over-reliance on computer modeling. Just five years after completion, the center’s roof collapsed under a heavy snow load. The arena was empty, but hours earlier it had been packed for a hockey game. “If you start trusting computers too much, not only does your job become less interesting, but you’re running all kinds of risks and you become a technician, not an engineer—you’re not thinking about things,” says Cook.
Cook feels the same way about design aids —shortcuts that help engineers find solutions in less time. Instead of teaching students how to use them, Cook teaches students how to develop their own. “You can spend a lot of time teaching how to properly use a design aid. If you use it incorrectly, you can make a big mistake. And codes change, so aids become obsolete,” says Cook.
Another problem is that design aids are sometimes wrong. To illustrate, Cook takes down a thick book from the homemade shelves in his office. This dog-eared volume has tabs on at least half a dozen pages where Cook found mistakes that he reported to the publisher.
Cook’s specialty is structural design, but he teaches a wide variety of civil engineering courses, mostly at either end of a student’s college education—from the introductory 400 course to senior level courses in concrete, timber, and steel design.
Whenever possible, Cook will show rather than tell. His office is filled with boards, cables, and beam cross sections. “I try to figure out a way to demonstrate stuff in class,” he says, taking out a pre-stressed cable anchor used to tighten cables and demonstrating how it will slide one way on the cable but not the other. “I could explain how this works in class, but it’s much easier to bring it in and take it apart.
“The biggest thing, really, is loving the material you teach. There’s so much about civil engineering that is just really cool. It helps you understand the world,” says Cook.
“Look at a concrete building. You have to understand physics, because it must withstand the forces of snow and wind. You have to understand the chemistry of concrete reactions and dehydration. And there’s math —how all the forces add up. If you really understand civil engineering, in particular structural engineering, you understand why trees are the way they are. I get excited about it and students pick up on that.”
They certainly do. “He has a fantastic enthusiasm that makes you interested in learning, and a great teaching method that provided me with a good base for the classes I’m taking this year,” says senior Alyssa Rezendes. “He truly seems to care about his students and what they choose to do in life.”