Chris Carroll comes to UL from Virginia Tech and the University of Tennessee, where he was highly regarded for his teaching abilities and for an innovative high school outreach program he created. He was also featured as a technical expert on the Lost Worlds series for The History Channel, and currently he and his students are building models of ancient structures for an upcoming series for The Discovery Channel, part of which will be filmed on the UL campus next month.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born and raised in Tennessee. I'm originally from Elizabethton, Tennessee. I played a couple of years of baseball at King College in Bristol, Tennessee, then I transferred to the University of Tennessee. I did my bachelor's and master's there. I took off to Virginia Tech in 2005, and I was there four years doing a PhD.
I knew since I was little that I wanted to be an engineer, but I didn't know that I wanted to be a professor. That started my last year as an undergrad at UT when I started an outreach program there. I set it up so that we would go talk to a couple of high schools in Knoxville. It turned out to be a big hit with the kids. We would build balsa wood bridges, and the students would stack books onto them until they exploded. The kids absolutely loved it. Nobody ever fell asleep.
With that program, I realized that I really enjoy speaking with students about engineering, and that I had a future in teaching. I worked at the Tennessee Valley Authority for about three and a half years, from May 2002 to August 2005. I had a supervisor there who had gone to UT, then Virginia Tech, then back to UT for his PhD. He asked me if I ever thought about getting a PhD. I hadn't really thought much about it, I thought I would just get a master's and go design skyscrapers. But after the high school outreach program, I started thinking about it more. And then I began teaching freshman in my master's program. I had about 60 students, teaching them statics, dynamics, programming. So that was the final step to see if I wanted to do it. From there, I took off for Tech, and spent the next 4 years there.
The one thing that pulled me to Tech was that they gave me the option to teach for one semester. The first year I was there, they started a new program, the College of Engineering Teaching Fellowship Program. So I applied for it. Originally I had only planned to be there three years, but I was one of five who got the fellowship that first year and it was set up so that you had to teach for three years in the program. I started off teaching one year in the freshman class, and then in the last two years I taught the reinforced concrete design program four times, which is the same class I teach here. So this year has been an easy transition for me.
My second year at Virginia Tech, I had gotten some ribbing about getting on a Country Music Television talk show, The Top 20 Countdown. They were walking around the beach interviewing people, and they happened to talk to me. So there was this joke going around about that, and I was considered one of the more out-going students in the program. Then Dr. Sotelino was contacted about some show for The History Channel. They said were looking for a younger-looking American in engineering. She said, "You need to talk to this guy."
So I get an eMail from somebody at Atlantic Productions out of the UK, telling me that they want to do this show on bunkers. They asked me if I could send in a CV and some photos. I thought it was a joke. I went to Dr. Sotelino, and said "What is this?"
She said, "I don't know, just send it in." So I sent it in.
The next day I'm driving to school, and I get a call from some really long number. It's the producer in the UK for Atlantic Productions. We talk about 30 minutes, she interviews me, wants to know about my expertise. I told her I've done a lot of stuff with concrete, that's what my research is on. We get to the end, and she says, "Chris I'll be honest with you, I think you're the person to do this."
She wanted me to send in something on camera, to make sure I didn't have any twitches or other problems. I sent in a video of me mixing concrete, explaining how it's like mixing cake batter. They loved it. So they said, "Alright, we want you to do this." They're telling me everything they want me to do. She goes into this long, 'What we're doing, Where we're going'.
This was two weeks before Thanksgiving in '06. In our initial conversation she asked if I could do a shoebox version of a bunker, and I said I thought I could do something better than that.
I went to my advisers and I said, "I think I'm going to be doing a TV show." They thought it was the coolest thing ever. I asked them if they thought we could build a bunker in the lab and drop a wrecking ball on it, to show how it could hold the load. I talked with the department head, and we worked it out to build the bunker for the show.
The Thursday before Thanksgiving we got the final word from Atlantic Productions to go ahead and build it. I went to the hardware store and bought all the lumber and rebar I thought we would need. Then I got about six grad students to help me with it. We only had about four days, and we met up Thursday afternoon scratching our heads. Then I said, "OK, I think this is what we have to do." I came up with this small-scale bunker, 6 feet long, 5 feet wide and 5 feet tall.