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From LEGOs to forts, new professor at York College built love of engineering early in life

Dr. Alison Kennicutt, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering

Dr. Alison Kennicutt, a new assistant professor of Civil Engineering at York College of Pennsylvania, knows about collaboration. She calls it an essential element – a support beam of sorts – that spans the spectrum of engineering practices.

Even within civil engineering, she will tell you, there are specialties that work together.

“I always think of it as the public works engineering,” she says of civil engineering, noting that it encompasses structural engineering in the design of bridges and buildings; geotechnical engineering, focusing on soil and rock that underpin physical structures; transportation engineering; environmental engineering, with an emphasis on pollutants; and water resources engineering.

Her teaching assignment begins in the fall semester, coinciding with the opening of a new academic building for the two-year-old Civil Engineering program in the Kinsley School of Engineering, Science and Technology. The new building will provide needed lab, classroom, and office space.

Dr. Kennicutt’s approach will involve collaboration with other engineering instructors. 

“That is a really great opportunity,” she says of becoming part of an interconnected faculty. “Instead of being isolated and on my own, I have a chance to bring in other disciplines and other projects.”

A ‘tree-house-building kid’

Dr. Kennicutt’s interest in math and science, and especially her desire to understand how processes play out, led her to pursue an engineering degree.

“I needed to know why and how,” she says. “I was always a taking-things-apart kind of kid. I wanted to use math and science as a problem-solving tool.”

Her early building experience involved LEGOs and K’NEX blocks.

“Half and half, I would follow the directions in a kit for LEGOs, or I would go rogue,” she explains. “I was totally a tree-house-building kid. We used to build forts like it was our job. I was probably destined to be an engineer in that regard.”

She grew up on a farm, where she says there were tractors, lawnmowers, and rototillers to be taken apart and fixed.

She still has an Erector set.

Finding her place in engineering

In college, she initially pursued a degree in biomedical engineering.

“I switched to Civil Engineering because I was more interested in geotechnical technology, soil aspects,” she explains. “Soils led me to water, and that led me to water quality. That’s when I began to pursue environmental engineering instead.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and her master’s degree and doctorate in Environmental Engineering, all from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

From 2015 until this summer, Dr. Kennicutt served as a post-doctoral research associate at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through a grant from the National Research Council. Focusing on drinking water, she examined the byproducts that result from the addition of the disinfectant chloramine.

Not much research existed on the subject, so she created model waters to use in toxicity testing.

A broad view of the science

Dr. Kennicutt’s instruction in the fall initially will cover studies of geotechnical and soil mechanics.

“As we work through my first year here, we will get a wet lab up and running,” she says. “All students will take ‘Introduction to Environmental Engineering.’ We’ll talk about landfill design, water treatment, waste-water treatment.”

As she plans her syllabus, she is talking to instructors in other facets of engineering about helping students realize how their specialty fits into a bigger picture.

“Broadening your scope and your exposure to different types of engineering will only make you a better engineer in your field,” she says.

Before she ever steps in front of a classroom of students, Dr. Kennicutt can say that teaching at York College is her “dream job.”

“I was very excited to find it,” she explains. “A really big part of that excitement is that the Civil Engineering program is so new, so I’m able to be part of the development and expansion of it. I don’t have to stay in a certain niche. I can grow with the interests of my students. Any sort of environmental engineering programs my students want to take on, I’m free to do that.”

Having performed research, she recognizes its importance. But at York College, she can focus on teaching.

“A lot of times professors have to choose between research and teaching,” she points out. “I like that the focus here is creating a healthy and productive learning environment and is so student-focused.”