Dr. Stephen J. Ressler, ‘89G, ‘91 Ph.D., gives back to his alma mater in a unique and impactful way

Whenever Dr. Stephen J. Ressler starts a new class, he does two things.

"I make it a point to learn 100 percent of my students’ first names by the second lesson,” he says. "It's a very effective way of saying, ‘I care about you as an individual.'"

Secondly, he asks his students to fill out a questionnaire that includes questions about their interests outside the classroom, including their favorite song and movie. Ressler plays one of the songs or a clip from one of the movies before every lecture and introduces the appropriate student as the "sponsor" of that day's clip or song.

"It's all part of building an interpersonal rapport with each student," he says. "Students know that I've come from a prior career as an Army officer, so they probably expect my classes to be stiff and formal. I like to smash that preconception as quickly as possible!"

Ressler completed his Master of Science and Ph.D. in civil engineering at Lehigh in 1989 and 1991 respectively. Before that, he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and went on to serve for 34 years as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

During this time, he was also Professor and Head of the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering at USMA, and in 2013, he retired at the rank of Brigadier General.

While some enjoy a quiet retirement, Ressler has used his to find even more ways to help train aspiring civil engineers. He serves on the Committee on Education and Committee on Accreditation—both at the national-level—for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and he is one of ASCE's three representatives on the Board of Delegates for the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

"I also serve on the Board of Directors for both the Lehigh Valley Section of ASCE and the Lehigh Valley Engineering Council," Ressler adds, "and I've remained quite active in the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) and have presented several papers at the ASEE Annual Conference since I retired."

Ressler also develops online engineering courses for The Great Courses Plus -- something that started even before he retired. "These are college-level lecture series, developed by hand-picked college professors and sold to the general public, either on DVD or for internet download," he says. "My first two courses were "Understanding the World's Greatest Structures" and "Understanding Greek and Roman Technology." Those were completed while I was still teaching at West Point."

Since retiring, Ressler has developed two more—"Everyday Engineering" and "Do It Yourself Engineering." He says each of these took two full years of full-time work to develop.

The latest course he developed isn't exactly new, isn't for The Great Courses Plus, and definitely isn't available for download. Earlier this year, Ressler was asked to return to Lehigh and teach the CEE department's Professional Development course for the Fall 2018 semester. He enthusiastically accepted and subsequently began reimagining what the course could look like under his auspices.

"I tell my students that this course will teach them all of the non-technical aspects of being a practicing CE professional," he says. That includes a wide range of topics including professionalism; professional licensure; roles of the professional society; project delivery systems; professional responsibilities; the business side of engineering practice; impact of engineering solutions in the social, economic, political, and environmental contexts; engineers in public policy; leadership; civil engineering history and heritage; engineering ethics; and professional writing.

One of Ressler's favorite lectures for this class involves a case study on the structural deficiency in the design of the Citicorp Tower — a 59-story skyscraper in New York City — and the associated ethical issues. "To illustrate how the technical and ethical issues in this case are intertwined, I use a large model of the Citicorp Tower, made from K'nex — a kids' construction toy," he says. "The students really seemed to appreciate having the model available to help visualize the structural engineering dimension of the case."

Ressler says it's been his quest for many years to share the joys of engineering with inquiring minds of all ages. He adds that the opportunity to do this at Lehigh now is especially satisfying. "When I was a graduate student at Lehigh back in the late 1980s, the CEE department had an immensely positive impact on my life and professional career — an impact for which I am profoundly grateful," he says. "Teaching in the department as an adjunct professor has provided me with a wonderful and long overdue opportunity to give back."

-John Gilpatrick is a freelance contributor to the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.


Dr. Stephen J. Ressler, ‘89G, ‘91 Ph.D. (Photo courtesy Stephen J. Ressler)

Ressler, a Lehigh CEE alum, returned to the Civil and Environmental Engineering department to teach as an adjunct professor. (Photo courtesy Stephen J. Ressler)