While the geosynthetics industry has come on in leaps and bounds over the last two decades, adequate undergraduate teaching of the subject has not followed, says Peter Rankilor.
In the last 25 years, the geosynthetics industry has changed a great deal. From the days of the first commercial 'design manuals' and following Bob Koerner's and my first textbooks on the subject, the amount of information available has burgeoned beyond belief.
Now, the four-yearly International IGS conference has been supplemented by the North American two-yearly conference, a four-yearly EuroGeo conference for geosynthetics and a dozen or more similar events all over the world. There are two world-recognised professional journals and other industry journals run regular features on the subject. Dozens of textbooks have now been published.
We seem to have reached that sublime state where there is more material published on the subject than any one human being can read and where there is not a single civil engineering project that does not have a geosynthetic involved somewhere.
One might say, 'At least this shows a healthy and vigorous industry with a lot of interest'. Well yes and no.
Internationally there is too much research time wasted and too many poor quality publications being repeated. There is far too much 'bumph' being published at far too detailed a level, which people are just not finding the time to read. What happened to the concept that publication was intended primarily for breakthrough developments?
Now, the academic world leads a life of enforced publication frenzy because governments no longer support research work in the manner they should. All these new conferences publish endless papers, most of which recount time-worn stories of how a slope was built or how a certain product stopped rutting in roads.
This publication frenzy persuades people that only recent papers are worthwhile. Why should research that was conducted twenty years ago with the same product that is being sold today be any less valid?
I believe there is one major area in the UK which is sadly lacking in the whole of this excited scene - the education of undergraduate students. While the use of geosynthetics has expanded considerably a commensurate increase in the level of knowledge concerning their design and installation has not followed.
I often teach graduates one or two years out of university and they are woefully under-trained in geosynthetics at any level. It transpires that they have received only a few hours of instruction during three or four years' teaching. No doubt there are exceptions, but I compare the situation with the extensive hours spent in tuition on subjects such as steel and reinforced concrete design. Graduates are fully capable of designing a beam and a foundation in concrete but none of them are capable of designing a simple road involving a textile or a reinforced soil structure.
This is all the more ridiculous when one looks at what happens in the real world. Take a recent project for which I was the consultant. The client wanted concrete bridge abutments and overpasses, but as soon as the contractor won the bid he immediately had all the concrete work redesigned as reinforced soil. It is widely recognised that reinforced soil is 30% to 40% cheaper than concrete and is currently the preferred material for many structures. Yet universities still give very little time to its design on their undergraduate syllabuses.
There are only a few educational establishments like the Bolton Institute that have their own in-house specialist and who can therefore provide strong geotextile related training and research. I would therefore ask universities to consider appointing visiting lecturers and professors to increase the links with experienced design consultants and thus bring this important subject into a more proportionate situation within their courses.
To help, the International Geosynthetics Society in the UK is preparing a slide presentation which explains the functions of the IGS and the wide range of uses for geosynthetics in the civil and coastal engineering fields. It is hoped that this may also inspire some of the university lecturers to allocate more time to this vital and interesting subject and to reverse the situation where so many graduates need to go to further education sources for adequate training.
I recommend universities to take advantage of this development to increase their undergraduate awareness of this most important subject.
Peter Rankilor is an independent geotechnical consultant and visiting professor at the Bolton Institute. He is developing the IGS lecture on the use of geosynthetics and will present it at organisations' request, free of charge (see news).