Retired Engineering professor hits books … again

Debora Van Brenk // Western News

Newly retired Civil Engineering professor Mike Bartlett is going back to school – this time as a student in the Masters of Public History program.

Mike Bartlett has a back-to-school story for the ages, specifically, for all his ages. Newly retired as a Civil and Environmental Engineering professor, Bartlett is returning to the classroom in September – this time as a student.

Bartlett, an international expert in the structural mechanics of highway bridges and buildings, has trained and led a generation of civil engineers across the continent. He earned his first engineering degree in 1979, his masters three years later, and his doctorate in 1994.

Now, 40 years after earning his first degree, he returns for a fourth: a Masters in Public History.

“My brother has four degrees and I can’t put up with that,” he quipped.

Beyond sibling rivalry, he is also motivated by an aversion to the traditional expectations of a retired person: a better golf game, some travel, a few hands of bridge. When someone asks him to do any of those things, “I now have a pat answer. I’m a student.”

Mostly, though, he is pursuing another graduate degree because he believes he has more to learn and more to offer.

“As I think about things I’ve done in my limited spare time, an interest in history has always been fairly consistent. It’s rather nice to have the opportunity to scratch that itch.”

Bartlett’s professional CV would fill half a notebook; his awards and honours as a professor and researcher would fill the other half.

He is a fellow of the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering, the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, and the American Concrete Institute. A recipient of the A.B. Sanderson award for outstanding contribution to the study and practice of structural engineering in Canada, he also served as Associate Dean (Undergraduate Studies) and taught and supervised Engineering students for a quarter-century.

Now, though, he will research and submit papers on deadline for someone else to grade.

Last year, he tested the waters by enrolling in three undergraduate courses in Public History.

In the process, he learned more about teamwork and leadership, from the students’ side of the desk. “There were some slightly hairy moments about getting assignments in” as he juggled the dual roles of professor and student, he acknowledged.

But students and professors universally made him feel welcomed.

“The thing that was fun is that the group I was in had skills I didn’t have and I had skills they didn’t have. When we figured out our strengths, it worked out really well.”

Just 12 students are in the Masters of Public History program, and they have diverse backgrounds that also include undergraduate degrees in a range of disciplines.

During the year, Bartlett intends to focus on public history in civil engineering.

As chair of the national history committee for the Canadian Society for Civil Engineers, he played a key role last year when the organization designated Western’s Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory a national historic site and the American Society of Civil Engineers recognized the wind tunnel as an international historical landmark.

It’s the kind of work Bartlett hopes to continue and expand upon.

“The experience over the past year has taught me I can do this. Public history is to history as engineering is to science. It’s kind of applied. I do have the sense I will have lots of skills to add and add to.”