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Faculty member’s research cuts across academic disciplines

A conversation with engineering professor Brock Woodson can lead in some unexpected directions, including discussions about Spanish explorers and ancient Roman art. While these topics seemingly have little in common with engineering, they illustrate the way Woodson’s research cuts across academic disciplines.

“My work is inherently interdisciplinary,” said Woodson, an associate professor in the School of Environmental, Civil, Agricultural and Mechanical Engineering. “I rarely work with just engineers. I work with social scientists and ecologists and oceanographers and population dynamics scientists, even members of fishing communities.”

Woodson studies the sustainability of marine ecosystems. He’s particularly interested in how the ocean environment affects how animals interact with each other, and in turn, how those interactions affect how humans interact with the ocean environment.

He says art depicting Romans catching huge fish near shore and the accounts of explorers finding a bounty of fish and other wildlife as they sailed into Monterey Bay along the California coast may offer clues into how dramatically people have impacted the world’s oceans.

“There’s a general thought that people haven’t had a significant effect on fisheries until the rise of industrial fishing in the early 1900s,” said Woodson. “I think that’s a bit of a misconception. As humans worldwide, I think we’ve had an effect much longer.”

Woodson believes understanding what the oceans looked like before humans began harvesting is the only way to really know how much we can sustainably harvest.

In 2018, Woodson and his colleagues published a study in Nature Communications that offered a new approach to exploring and predicting the structure of ocean ecosystems. The research also suggested overfishing may be considerably more harmful than previously thought.

“Just coming into problems like those with an engineering background you have a very different perspective of how things might work and how systems fit together,” he said. “At the same time, to understand some of these systems, I work on a range of projects from instrumentation development to numerical model development to try to understand some of these complex interactions.”

Woodson traces his love of the outdoors and the ocean to summers spent on Alabama’s Dauphin Island, where is aunt and uncle owned a beach house. Although he considered studying marine ecology in college, a penchant for math and science led him to Georgia Tech where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering.  

“Then, I spent the next ten years trying to figure out how to make engineering do what I wanted it to do,” Woodson joked.

After working for a few years as a design engineer for an architectural fountain firm (working at times with Maya Lin – the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial), he returned to Georgia Tech to purse his doctorate. It was there his drive to conduct ocean research connected with his engineering expertise and he was able apply the science of fluid dynamics to ocean and fisheries questions.

Following post-doctoral work at the University of Hawaii, and time at Stanford University as a research engineer, Woodson joined the newly-formed College of Engineering at UGA in January 2013.

“I was looking for something a little different,” he said. “What really intrigued me about coming to UGA was the interdisciplinary aspects of the college. I was specifically looking for that forward-thinking, interdisciplinary atmosphere.”

Woodson brings a similar forward-thinking approach to his teaching in the College of Engineering. He revamped the college’s fluid mechanics course by introducing “flipped classroom” practices. The approach introduces students to topics via brief videos viewed outside of class, with homework assignments that include foundational problems based on concepts covered in the videos. In class, students collaborate with Woodson, teaching assistants and each other to work through more complex problems and concepts in both one-on-one and small group formats.

For his work to impact learning and retention rates by incorporating these active engagement strategies, Woodson shared a 2015 UGA Creative Teaching Award with Siddharth Savadatti, a lecturer in the College of Engineering. The model is now used by all instructors who teach fluid mechanics in the college.

The flipped classroom model also allows Woodson opportunities to connect his research to his teaching.

“Almost every class period I spend time explaining how I use the particular principles introduced in the videos,” he said. “I show how those concepts play out in my own experience and how they thread through some of the more interdisciplinary research I do.”

While he’s always enjoyed teaching, Woodson says he especially enjoys the flipped classroom approach.

“I get a lot more interaction with students,” he said. “I could almost - almost - teach a flipped classroom without giving exams because I know who understands the material and who is putting forth effort just by walking around the class and listening to students work through the material together. It’s pretty phenomenal.”

By Mike Wooten

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