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AFA professor brings real-life experience to classroom

Thu, Sep 6, 2012

One on One

Lt. Col. John Christ uses his military experience to translate dry engineering concepts into real-life experiences that resonate with cadets at the Air Force Academy.

The 39-year-old civil engineer, born in San Bernardino, Calif., has an AFA degree in civil engineering, a master’s in engineering and environmental management from the Air Force Institute of Technology, and a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from the University of Michigan.

As a civil engineer, Christ wants to spend some time to find ways for USAFA professors to collaborate with Colorado Springs businesses and grow the city as a hub of innovation.

How has your military experience helped in your teaching career?

Military experience, both stateside and abroad, provides real-world examples that I can translate to the classroom. We all know a story is much easier to remember than a list of facts or a procedure. My military career has provided that story to translate engineering concepts from the dry textbook into real-life experiences that resonate with the students. Students always pay closer attention when I start to relate a concept with…”There I was…”. Also, part of our mission at the USAF Academy is to build leaders. These experiences allow me to ask the cadets hard questions so that they can think critically about what they’d do in a given situation. Often the “engineering” is the easy part. I want them to also learn from my experiences how to operate in the complex environment where there is no approved solution.

Do you have any particular areas of research or interest that you share with your students?

I continue to collaborate with a number of colleagues on two primary areas of interest: engineering education and subsurface contamination (a subset in environmental engineering). I have been fortunate to have great students work with me during semester or year-long independent studies. These students have examined ways we can improve our curriculum and teaching methods within the department using model-eliciting activities. These open-ended problems require the students to formulate the right questions to solve a problem and then use their engineering to answer those questions. The focus is on operating in an ill-defined environment. Likewise, some students have enjoyed working on DOD/DOE/EPA and NSF- funded research projects I have examining remediation of subsurface contamination. I’ve had students conduct background research, run sophisticated numerical models, and collaborate in the labs of colleagues at the Colorado School of Mines, working to identify risks to human health and effective remediation strategies for subsurface contamination.

What do you think students today should know in order to be successful — knowledge outside the academic arena?

I encourage all of my engineering students to look for those abilities that will distinguish them from another graduate. I want them to think about how they’d answer the question: Why should I pay you to solve this problem if I can have a computer program solve it or pay an engineer somewhere else to solve it for less money. Many authors have argued, and I agree, that the difference that will set our students apart from others is their creativity and innovation. Thus, they should be honing these skills while in school. There are numerous ways to improve this ability, but they should be focusing on their creativity and innovation so that they’re not only solving tomorrow’s problems, but dreaming up solutions before they even become problems.

What attracted you to the military and how do you encourage USAFA cadets to succeed?

To be perfectly honest, I was a recruited athlete. I came to USAFA to play water polo. After my first two years here at USAFA I was unhappy and didn’t think the Air Force was for me. I quit. It wasn’t until that year away, during which I worked as a laborer and attended a semester of school at the University of Missouri — Rolla, that I realized just how special it was to be part of the military community. I missed the work ethic of the military and the sense of family. I also appreciated the sense of duty and the willingness of military families to sacrifice to make things better for everyone. I was exceedingly lucky and was re-admitted to USAFA. My last two years at USAFA were a drastic improvement: grades, military bearing and athletic ability all improved. Since graduating I’ve continued to be thankful for the great people I work with and the challenges that have evolved into excellent opportunities. I share my personal story with every cadet in the classroom so that they see success is all about attitude and choices. My first two years I had a bad attitude and made lazy choices. My last two years I appreciated the opportunity and that shifted in attitude translated to significant improvements in every facet of life, ultimately leading to my selection to go straight to graduate school.

How long have you been in Colorado Springs, and what do you think could be improved about the city to make it more successful?

I first came to Colorado Springs in June 1991 as a 17-year-old USAF Academy basic cadet. I remained here off-and-on until graduating in May 1996. I then didn’t return until June 2005. Other than the past year, which I spent working for NATO in Izmir, Turkey, we’ve lived in Colorado Springs ever since. We really enjoy the opportunities Colorado Springs has to offer and look forward to remaining here for many years to come. At a more actionable level I hope to use the coming years to identify opportunities to improve collaboration between the USAF Academy and Colorado Springs entities. Given the great experience and expertise we have not only at USAFA, but also at the surrounding military installations and higher learning institutions, I hope we can continue to improve and leverage this experience to help Colorado Springs grow as a hub of innovation.

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