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Problem-solving, technology, and public service all combine when you work as an engineer for the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Dr. Michael Sterling, PhD, is a lead water resource engineer at the US Army Corps of Engineers, Southwestern Division, and he oversees missions related to water supply, flood prevention, hydroelectric power, and more issues affecting large swaths of the USA. Dr. Sterling also discusses how he came to USACE from the fields of chemical, civil, and environmental engineering, and how to help young people get on a similar path.

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Pius Wong 0:00

What's it take to be a part of the Army Corps of Engineers? That's coming up on The K12 Engineering Education Podcast. I'm Pius Wong. Recently I got to speak with Dr. Michael Sterling, PhD, the chief engineer overseeing major water resource projects for the US Army Corps of Engineers' Southwestern division. Dr. Sterling's achievements span a long career in civil and environmental engineering, computer modeling, and managing large scale missions in water resources. Hear about how he got on this track next.


Dr. Michael Sterling 0:35

My name is Michael Sterling, and I am the Lead Water Resource Engineer for the Southwestern Division of the Army Corps of Engineers. And the Southwestern Division is comprised of about six states which are located on the lower southern plains of the United States. So that's our mission area, and my job as the lead water resource engineer is to support water resource projects that provide flood risk reduction, but also provide benefits such as water supply and hydroelectric power for the nation. So we've got a big, big responsibility here in this region.


Pius Wong 1:22

Wow. So that's huge, and I think that some people might not understand how engineers are needed to help prevent floods and deal with all these things. Why do we need engineers to tackle these issues? Why can't other people handle flood prevention or water supply? That kind ofthing.


Dr. Michael Sterling 1:40

Sure. So engineers almost by mission across the board use math and science to solve problems. And so when we think about the problems and opportunities that are created around water resources, my challenge as a water resource engineer is to use the tools of math and science to help us both protect people who may be vulnerable to flooding inside of flood plains, as well as optimize the benefits of water, with water supply purposes, or hydro power or even navigation design. So we're just using the tools of math and science to help us solve problems more efficiently.


Pius Wong 2:27

I see. And why is the Corps of Engineers, the US Army Corps of Engineers involved in this? Why can't we have like private companies doing that same thing?


Dr. Michael Sterling 2:37

Sure. So the the mission of the Army Corps of Engineers, especially being involved in the water resources area just stems from from history. We've been involved in this area virtually since the beginning of the founding of the country. And our missions have evolved as the nation needed us to take on more and more. As the Corps, we serve as the public steward of these areas. And so we do work with a lot of private and industrial firms to help us. But as the single representative for the nation's needs with respect to a lot of the water resource challenges, we provide the type of honest broker services for the nation.


Pius Wong 3:28

What kind of technology is involved? I know you said that engineers have to use math and science to help manage these systems, create these systems. I know that we always hear about new technology coming out of other industries. What about this field? What's something new and interesting that you think someone should know about?


Dr. Michael Sterling 3:47

Sure. So there's a couple of big areas that the Corp, with respect to water resources engineering, is involved with. One is the evolution of models, such as a geographic information systems. Those are models that allow us to represent the Earth's surface in a digital format. And so if you think about areas such as floodplain management, it's helpful to have some type of geographic representation of different places so that we can develop problem-solving designs, lay them right on top of what we view a local topography, or the local ground shapes, so that we can see how effective our answers may be in a quick amount of time. So that's one of the areas that is really evolving.


Pius Wong 4:44

That's really interesting. You know that we're in Austin, we're based in Austin, Texas. So we're very familiar with thinking about flooding and also technology and that kind of thing. That's interesting that you mentioned that computer modeling and simulation is involved in this right now. I understand that you've studied a lot of different engineering fields. And I was wondering if you could talk about what you studied and what's the value of knowing engineering or studying across different disciplines?


Dr. Michael Sterling 5:13

Yeah. So I did study across a number of engineering fields, and part of that approach was, I approached engineering as you know, just general problem-solving, but I wasn't really sure on a personal level, what type of problems I really wanted to be most involved in solving. So I began my career studying and being involved in chemical engineering areas, and after some time working in that arena, working in the petrochemical arena, I decided I wanted to shift to do something a little bit different. So I went back to college and got involved with biological and agricultural engineering, in part because I was interested in in some of the environmental engineering challenges that area of study. And I did some research work in that area. But then I slowly migrated more into the civil and environmental engineering world, partly because of my public service interests. That major really -- it undergirds a lot of the public service agencies that you see both at the local state and federal levels. And it also blended my past study work in both the chemical and environmental world to be able to help solve some of those problems. So, frankly, as you study across STEM fields, in general, you start to see a lot of the interconnectedness between different areas, and even though they have the different fields have different names. As you start to get more and more involved in them, you start seeing a lot more commonality between those areas, and the differences start to blur. So I was fortunate enough to learn that as I got further along, but the labels matter less as you learn more about these different areas.


Pius Wong 7:09

So you don't have to know exactly what you want to do when you're a young kid or something.


Dr. Michael Sterling 7:14

Luckily for me, that's the case go back. I did bounce around a little bit as I tried to learn more. And I think it helped me to ask different questions. So it made me better all around. So I appreciate that experience.


Pius Wong 7:28

So how did you end up at the US Army Corps of Engineers?


Dr. Michael Sterling 7:34

So I ended up at the Corps of Engineers. It followed my work as a PhD student in civil engineering, and I was, as most students, interested in trying to figure out okay, what's gonna be my career step after college. I talked with a number of state and federal organizations, and I just was impressed as I talked with the Corps of Engineers with the breadth of missions that the agency did, the number of, types of large projects that we support as the Corps. And so I wanted an opportunity to help, to join that team, and find a place where I could make a contribution.


Pius Wong 8:22

That's fantastic. And today, you're overseeing, like you said, a ton of huge projects. And I was wondering if there was someone younger growing up today, who maybe was interested in these types of fields, these large projects that affect a lot of people's lives, what can they do? What should they do?


Dr. Michael Sterling 8:44

So I go to reach out with young people at the college level through career fairs and also through their student engineering groups, but also at the high school and middle school of areas to reach out to those students. And what I tell the younger students particularly is really be open to experiences of all your classes. You know, math and science are sometimes challenging, but definitely try to learn as much about that as you can, as well as the other subjects that you're studing. And then try -- if you if you feel like you do have an interest in a science or engineering field, you know, try to do things in the extracurricular world. I personally got involved with doing science fairs, and so that helped me to build my understanding of science and engineering in a different way. Other other students are encouraged to do the robotics clubs or other clubs, you know, at their school, because you're going to learn a lot of things outside of the classroom, that will make you ask questions that makes the learning in the classroom even more interesting. So that's what I encourage.


Pius Wong 10:07

Do they have to do ROTC, for example, if they want to be part of the Corps? Do they have to be military?


Dr. Michael Sterling 10:14

That's a great question. So even though the Army Corps of Engineers is a Department of Army organization, over 98% of our staff are civilian, so we have some military employees or staff, but the vast majority are civilian. So you don't have to be in the military to be a part of the Army Corps of Engineers. And frankly, most of our folks aren't. But we do support -- we have a number of folks that support a lot of military missions across across the world. And then we have folks like myself who specialize in areas such as water resource engineering, or even ecosystem restoration type work, that are less involved in the military support. So we have a lot of missions, you know, whenever there's a need for our nation to do something that requires engineering support, we're one of the agencies that kind of runs toward the mission to help out.


Pius Wong 11:15

Okay. And you mentioned kind of a big diversity of fields that the Army Corps of Engineers works on, more than just water resources management, that kind of thing. I feel like sometimes it's hard for younger people to find mentors or role models or people that they know doing something that they're interested in. How can young people get or find mentors, like to see engineers like you doing what they want to do? Or how can teachers help young people find these mentors?


Dr. Michael Sterling 11:49

Sure. So there are a couple of ways to find engineering professional mentors, and of course if you're fortunate enough to live in a city that has engineering professions located there, you know, there's a lot of employees that reach out. But also another source of information is through the professional organizations that engineers are involved in. So in my case, I'm involved in the Society of American Military Engineers. I'm also involved in the American Society of Civil Engineers, and we have chapters all across the country. And we're always looking as part of our professional organizations to support K through 12 students and help them to understand our profession better. So my advice would be if you don't know an engineer directly through their professional occupation, reaching out through one of these professional organizations may be a way to get a link into some folks who can support the K through 12 folks.


Pius Wong 13:01

Related to that, I was wondering, did you have any heroes or people helping you out when you were growing up trying to -- because I think engineering can be viewed as really hard sometimes.


Dr. Michael Sterling 13:13

Sure. And so I'll say, as far as growing up, of course, you know, my parents really set a good foundation. Not so much with respect to engineering, but their approach to life and problem-solving could be summed up in the fact that every problem has some kind of solution. And they kind of drill that into us all the time. And so the way that manifested in me, as an example, was I turned into a problem-solving more in the engineering field. So I'll point to that foundation as key. And then even though I have a strong science and engineering background and interest now, I didn't really have that in middle school, just to be just to be frank with you. And I had a very influential middle school science teacher who pointed out to me that she thought I should be involved in science fairs. And being a typical middle school student, my response was, Well, that sounds like extra work. I don't want to do it. But in a small frame -- We kind of had a really close knit community, and so I think she saw my apprehension, and she reached out to my parents who she knew, and explained that she felt like I need to do that. And so after that communication happened, I was on board, or voluntold, if you want to say, to get with it. And it worked out. I mean, I did a school science fair and got a little bit of recognition, and the bug kind of stuck. And that was middle school. And I just kept doing it every year until it kind of culminated in high school when I wound up attending the International Science Fair, which was held, I think that year in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Pius Wong 15:13

The Intel science fair? That's pretty famous.


Dr. Michael Sterling 15:16

Yeah, yeah. And I had no idea. I mean, frankly, in middle school, I wouldn't have known that. And I don't think they knew that either, you know, even when they encouraged me to do that at that age, but it was a, like, I say, I had had strong encouragement to be able to solve problems and think things through. And so it just, you know, with the nurturing, like I say, really, of that middle school teacher and then others also, it just kind of manifested into this, you know, growing appreciation for science and engineering.


Pius Wong 15:55

That sounds really great. I've wanted to wrap up maybe with one broader question going back to your expertise in water management and flood control systems. What do you think the future is for flood control, emergency management, all of that? Is there anything any questions that are -- we really are burning to answer that maybe future engineers can help out with?


Dr. Michael Sterling 16:21

Sure. So there are -- The water resources engineering arena is one of the ones that's really going to be impacted by a lot of different stressors. So on one hand, folks are interested in more in changes in the climate. And so those translate potentially into additional rainfall and stronger storms, and so as water resource engineers, our challenge is to be able to design effective systems to deal with those types of environmental changes. And similarly, there'll be some other places where you may have less rainfall and so the challenge will be how do we support populations with respect to water supply where there may be less rainfall than there historically has been in a certain areas. So there's a ton of water resource challenges that are set to emerge over the next 50 years or so. And that's something that we're going to need more specialists to help us solve those problems.


Pius Wong 17:34

Alright. I guess there's a lot of work to be done still.


Dr. Michael Sterling 17:37

Right. Exactly.


Pius Wong 17:39

Dr. Sterling, I really appreciate the time you spent with us. I know that you're busy doing lots of things so I don't want to keep you too much. But I just wanted to say thank you on behalf of me, my helpers, my colleagues producing the show and everyone listening. If people want to learn more about the Corps, is the best way to just visit online or speak with their local chapters are something?


Dr. Michael Sterling 18:02

That's correct. Yeah, the best way is to go online. We have a lot of different -- depending on where you are in the country, we have a lot of different facilities that are local, and they can support the kinds of questions that folks may ask. Or, again, reaching out through professional organizations. We're available throughout all the communities that we serve, so folks are always willing to help out, especially to your audience, those folks that are helping develop the K through 12 future leaders for our groups. We appreciate their work as well.


Pius Wong 18:40

That was Dr. Michael Sterling, Lead Water Resource Engineer for the US Army Corps of Engineers, Southwestern division. A few years ago, Dr. Sterling made a speech in honor of that middle school teacher who "voluntold" him to do science fairs. It was Miss Elizabeth Hawkins, and you can watch a video of Dr. Sterling talk about her at the 2015 Black Engineer of the Year Awards Gala. That's right. Dr. Sterling also won 2015 Black Engineer of the Year. To watch the speech at the award ceremony just visit the link to it in this episode's show notes.


Pius Wong 19:16

As always, you can also find these links and more information about topics mentioned today on the podcast website, k12engineering.net. That's k, the number 12, engineering dot net. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of my independent studio Pios Labs in Austin, Texas, where I support many different engineering and education projects like this one. Go to patreon.com/pioslabs and donate today. Thanks for listening, and thank you for supporting the podcast.