September 14, 2009

Teaching Students to Find their Passion

UA alumnus Hugh Mathews knows firsthand that time in the classroom can cultivate relationships with faculty mentors that may last a lifetime. Mathews established such a bond with Dr. Dan Turner, his civil engineering technology professor, in the late 1970s. “Dan was very inspiring and worked to draw the very best out of all his students,” says Mathews, whose friendship with Turner continues to this day. “Now, with every visit, I still learn from him. His values, love for people, dedication to service and approach to life are still evident.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering technology in 1981, Mathews became a leading civil engineer and an active citizen in his community. As president of England-Thims & Miller, Inc., in Jacksonville, Fla., Mathews is responsible for civil engineering projects that include large private and public infrastructures. When Mathews learned of The University of Alabama’s “Our Students. Our Future.” capital campaign, he and his wife, Regina, decided to honor Turner by establishing the Daniel S. and Linda C. Turner Endowed Scholarship for civil engineering students. Mathews felt it was important to give back to someone who had made such a difference in his life.

Turner, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, began his tenure at the University–his alma mater–as an assistant professor of civil engineering technology. After 33 years, he will retire at the end of this year as a professor of civil engineering and the founding director of the University Transportation Center for Alabama.

Throughout the years, Turner has taught thousands of students to become exemplary engineers. “One of my favorite projects was developing and leading the Advanced Transportation Institute,” says Turner. “This program introduces junior and senior high school students to engineering disciplines, particularly transportation.” ATI, which began in 2002, focuses on recruiting students from traditionally underrepresented groups, specifically from the Black Belt areas of Alabama. In 2008, he added a second week of ATI, focusing on middle and high school students from the Tuscaloosa Junior Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. Approximately 50 students attend the one-week programs annually, which include presentations on transportation careers, advice on selecting a university and tips for obtaining scholarships.

Turner believes the hands-on activities that are a central part of ATI inspire the students to explore careers in transportation. “From designing their own model truss bridges using soda straws, to testing bridges on a computer, to building safety containers for dropping eggs out of bucket trucks, the students become familiar with the transportation industry,” says Turner. “They realize that they can enroll and succeed in civil engineering programs that they originally thought were beyond their capabilities.”

Jakkera Allen of Selma agrees that participating in ATI can change lives. With Turner’s encouragement, Allen, now a senior at UA, chose civil engineering as her major. When she attended ATI in 2004, the first person she encountered was a smiling and welcoming Turner.

“My freshman year at The University of Alabama, I walked up to Dr. Turner. He still knew who I was, and that tells me a lot about his passion for his work,” says Allen. “Dr. Turner taught me one very important lesson: If you find a job you love, then you will never work a day in your life.”


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