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talking point

Engineers still need to be educated on the uses and benefits of geosynthetics, says Chris Jenner.

Use of geosynthetic materials has become an established part of the civil engineering industry and can, in many ways, be considered a real success story of development over the last 30 years. Some form of geosynthetic material will be found on virtually every site where there are any ground works, road construction, or geotechnical work of any kind.

The application range is diverse, including reinforced soil walls, steep slopes and embankments, separation, filtration, drainage, containment and erosion control.

A large amount of work has been done, and continues, on the harmonisation of test methods with CEN and ISO standards and this is essential if the materials are to be specified correctly. As geosynthetics move to CE marking in the near future these harmonised testing standards will provide the basis for attestation.

However, one of the major problems of the industry is educating engineers to use the information that is becoming available.

BS8006, the British Standard Code of Practice for Strengthened/Reinforced Soils and other Fills, was published in 1995 and was a milestone in providing an authoritative, unbiased document which the practising engineer could use.

The principles described in the BS have been adopted wholly or partly in many countries. The BS describes the practice design methods at the time and was intended to give the engineer a reference on which to base designs. However, this is still a rare occurrence with most designs carried out by the manufacturers themselves or by a relatively small number of specialist consultants.

This is because the basic knowledge needed to use the information has not yet become part of the undergraduate civil engineering curriculum (with one or two exceptions).

The objectives of the International Geosynthetics Society (IGS) are to collect and disseminate knowledge on the materials, to promote advancement of the state of the art and to improve communication and understanding between designers, manufacturers and users.

The UK Chapter of IGS has these objectives at heart and uses mainly evening meetings, held jointly with the regional groups of related societies, to try to achieve these objectives. It is apparent, however, that while the use of geosynthetics is growing strongly, the knowledge and understanding of the subject by the nonspecialist civil engineer is not growing at the same rate.

My experience at the evening meetings has been that the use of geosynthetic materials is still considered to be a new and novel approach to problems.

While it is a pleasant feeling to present something that is seen as unusual and innovative, I feel we should be beyond that point with a number of applications. Notwithstanding that, a number of unique and groundbreaking projects will still evolve as geosynthetics continue to be used in new situations and applications.

The subject of education in the design and use of geosynthetics has been brought up before in this column, but it continues to be a rather worrying scenario in general which needs to be rectified. The reduction in applicants for civil engineering courses at university does not appear to be abating and if the first degree students are not coming through, we will not have the MSc and PhD students who should follow and form the core of specialists of the future.

These shortages must be reversed if we are to provide the expertise to carry out the proposed infrastructure programme of the next few years. Civil engineering has to become attractive to young people and it is incumbent on the industry in all its varied areas to promote itself as being a worthwhile and satisfying profession. There is no doubt that salary levels play a part, but it is also the old 'chestnut'of the perceived status of the engineer in UK society which needs to change.

I have recently heard the same points about training, too few specialised consultants, making the profession more attractive etc, applied to the asphalt industry and I am sure that other disciplines - piling for example - would fit into this as well.

While the interests of the geosynthetics industry are the primary concern of the IGS and the geosynthetics manufacturers, it is a wider problem which is, I believe, serious enough to be addressed at very high level within government.

However, all is not doom and gloom. I was very pleased to see that the four keynote lectures at the next European Geosynthetics Conference, Nice 2002, are to be presented by groups of young 'rising stars'from a number of different countries.

This attempt to open up the forum is a very good initiative to encourage succession while, of course, acknowledging the invaluable work still being carried out by the well-established experts around the world.

Can I encourage any reader who is not an IGS member to think about joining as we have a much better chance of influencing the present situation if we have more voices at evening meetings and seminars.

lChris Jenner is the chairman of the UK chapter of IGS and design & support services manager of Tensar International.

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