May 25, 2001

A concrete learning experience

  • Tennessee university offers nation’s first degree program in concrete
    Associated Press Writer

    MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — We walk on it, drive on it.

    It spans rivers, holds back dams, serves as the foundation for skyscrapers, shopping centers and homes.

    Concrete facts
  • Last year, 440 million cubic yards of concrete were placed in the United States at a cost of almost $90 billion. That’s 1.5 cubic yards for every man, woman and child, compared to 0.9 cubic yards in 1991.

  • Concrete does not dry. It hardens.

  • Concrete and cement are not the same. Cement is an ingredient of concrete.

  • Concrete is typically made of 10-15 percent cement, 60-75 percent aggregate (sand or gravel) and 15-20 percent water.

  • Generally, using less water produces a higher quality concrete, provided it is properly placed, consolidated and cured.

  • Ready mixed concrete, batched at local plants for delivery in trucks with revolving drums, account for nearly 75 percent of all concrete. Other concrete products include blocks, pipe, precast and prestressed.

  • One of the first evidences of concrete was a Roman version made of slaked lime and volcanic ash in 300 B.C. Among the admixtures: animal fat, milk and blood.

  • British stone mason Joseph Aspdin obtained a patent in 1824 for a cement he produced in his kitchen. Laying the foundation for today’s portland cement industry. He named it portland cement because it resembled a stone quarried on the Isle of Portland.

  • Concrete requires temperatures between 50-75 degrees to properly cure.

  • Concrete cracks because, like all materials, it shrinks slightly in volume when it dries out. Thus, contractors build in joints in concrete pavements and floors to allow it to crack in neat, straight lines.
  • Yet, since the Roman Empire first introduced a rudimentary form of concrete around 300 B.C., academia has virtually snubbed the oozing, grainy mixture that accounts for about a third of the nation’s $250 billion construction industry.

    Now, a growing Tennessee school is cementing its place as the nation’s first university to churn out graduates with four-year degrees in, well, concrete.

    “We’re not about just learning to pour slab,” said Austin Cheney, director of the Concrete Industry Management program at Middle Tennessee State University, a 19,000-student school just south of Nashville.

    “People don’t realize concrete is in almost every structure built. There’s a lot of technology involved. We need professionals who can understand both the technical side and the business side. This isn’t a laborer’s degree.”

    The bachelor of science program started in the fall of 1996 with two students and now has about 100 students and 19 graduates.

    The aim is to break the mold on an industry viewed historically as low-tech and dirty. In the process, the budding concrete scholars jokingly declare they one day will “kick asphalt” with starting jobs offering $45,000, a company car and other perks.

    “The concrete industry has depth,” said Matt Dryden, 30, a junior who left carpentry work to seek a degree in the hard stuff.

    “A lot of people think it’s just about driving a big truck and placing sidewalks and patios. They don’t realize there’s all kinds of professional jobs in sales, quality control, production management, managing a project for a concrete contractor, all sorts of things.”

    The university program is the brainchild of industry heavyweights who bemoan the lack of concrete course work in college civil engineering programs. With most of their concrete classes squeezed out by computer courses, civil engineers today generally graduate from college knowing little about the properties of one of their primary construction materials.

    The void weighs heavily on the minds of industry leaders.

    “You can never know all there is to know about concrete,” said Ward Malisch of the American Concrete Institute, a technical society devoted to building better with concrete.

    “It’s an exciting material, and the chemistry involved is incredibly complex.”

    On-the-job training can result in costly mistakes that require removing and replacing huge chunks of concrete — “a contractor’s nightmare,” said Malisch, who helped develop MTSU’s program.

    “Believe me, you’d rather learn it in a classroom than make a mistake on a mega-project that can cost you millions of dollars and set a project back months,” he said.

    The industry has poured at least $1 million into the MTSU program and it is anxious to recoup its investment. Over the last decade, many young workers have gravitated toward high-tech jobs at a time when concrete businesses have consolidated, become more competitive and need professional managers.

    “Young people aren’t interested any more in ‘old economy’ industries like construction or concrete,” said Robert Garbini, president of the National Ready Mix Concrete Association.

    “They want to become an investment banker or work in the stock market or the Internet. They don’t realize there are huge opportunities for longevity and success in a growth industry like ours.”

    So what exactly do concrete scholars study for four years?

    The foundation is math and science with a heavy load of business courses. That’s solidified by instruction in about everything from how to erect precast concrete to what to do when a slab curls or separates.

    They learn about hydration — the chemical process of making concrete by turning cement and water into the glue that holds together aggregates such as sand, gravel or crushed stone — and admixtures, chemicals that modify concrete’s properties, such as making it set faster or slower.

    They conduct slump tests and strength tests, and learn industry codes and environmental regulations.

    By graduation day, they are as adept at using PowerPoint as they are at using a trowel. And, perhaps most of all, they adopt the industry’s pet peeve and pledge to teach all who will listen that cement and concrete are NOT the same. Cement is an ingredient used to make concrete.

    Whatever concrete is, it’s in Donna Lamb’s blood.

    “I can’t drive by a construction site without slowing down and looking,” said Lamb, 41, a junior from Jonesville, Va. She enrolled at MTSU in 1999 after a car accident ended her road construction job rolling asphalt.

    “There’s just something about concrete,” she said philosophically. “It’s rewarding to think that I can build something that will last — something I can show my grandchildren someday and say, ‘Look, I helped with that!’ “

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