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Introducing Soil Property Evaluation in Geotechnical Engineering – Some Food for Thought

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Civil Engineering Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1027.1 - 26.1027.19



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Paper Authors


Gregg L. Fiegel California Polytechnic State University

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Gregg L. Fiegel is a Professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo. He is a registered Professional Engineer in California and he currently serves as the Interim Director of the University Honors Program. Dr. Fiegel received his B.S. degree in Civil Engineering from Cal Poly in 1990. He received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of California, Davis in 1992 and 1995, respectively.

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Nephi Derbidge Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, CA

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After completing his undergraduate studies at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Derbidge worked for a private geotechnical consulting firm in California for over 15 years. His consulting career provided a broad range of experience on mostly public works projects. Over the last 10 years, Derbidge has managed the geotechnical laboratory which served more than five offices throughout the state for domestic and international projects. He has been teaching mostly geotechnical laboratory courses at Cal Poly for over 10 years. Utilizing Cal Poly's 'Learn by Doing' mantra, Derbidge shares his practical project experience with his students during laboratory activities.

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Introducing Soil Property Evaluation in Geotechnical Engineering – Some Food for ThoughtAbstractDuring a first course in soil mechanics and geotechnical engineering, instructors must emphasizethe importance of soil property evaluation for classification and engineering purposes. Studentlearning outcomes typically address field and laboratory experiments commonly performed inpractice. On every project a geotechnical engineer must use visual-manual and more prescribedtests to assess soil characteristics such as particle size distribution, particle shape, consistency,plasticity, strength, compressibility, compaction, and hydraulic conductivity. Students quicklylearn that a geotechnical engineer serves as detective on the job, gathering important facts andinformation about the site soils before addressing the design problem.The first course in geotechnical engineering usually includes a laboratory component wherestudents touch, feel, examine, and test different soils. The astute instructor provides samples andsimple demonstrations to help illustrate new and important concepts related to soil behavior.Instructors encourage students to develop a sense of proportion and perspective whenconsidering geologic materials. How large are gravel, sand, silt, and clay grains? What is theconsistency of soft clay or loose sand? Developing perspective can be challenging since manystudents have not yet considered soils as construction materials. In these cases, analogies andcomparisons with familiar everyday 'things' prove helpful in improving student understandingand learning.Every student eats and has at least some knowledge of food, though this knowledge willadmittedly vary with the individual's palette. Instructors use this fact to their advantage whendemonstrating important concepts related to mechanics and materials. Have you ever witnessedthe use of dry pasta to demonstrate an important concept in physics or engineering? Indeed,geotechnical engineering instructors often apply food analogies in classroom and textbookdiscussions. Butter, peanut butter, and cheese prove illustrative when describing the consistencyof clayey soils at varying moisture contents.In this paper, we present some food for thought when addressing soil property evaluation ingeotechnical engineering instruction. Specifically, we summarize the results of a comprehensivetesting program designed to assess the "engineering" behavior of different foods. Specific testsand foods we examined include: measured consistency of common grocery store items(e.g. cheese, peanut butter, miso paste) using the liquid limit device, torvane, pocketpenetrometer, and triaxial test apparatus; frictional resistance of grain-like foods (e.g. rice, salt,sugar) using direct shear test equipment; particle size and particle size distribution of variousfood items (from flour to water melon); particle shape of various soft and hard candies; relativedensity and void ratio computations for various particulate materials (e.g. rice, coffee), andothers. We present test results with interesting graphics, photographs, and illustrations, whichcould easily be used during classroom and laboratory instruction. In addition, we briefly discussmaterial property evaluation required for the bulk handling and processing of food powders(e.g. flour, spices, cocoa) and comparisons with this study. We conclude the paper by discussingchallenges and learned lessons associated with testing food in the geotechnical laboratory.

Fiegel, G. L., & Derbidge, N. (2015, June), Introducing Soil Property Evaluation in Geotechnical Engineering – Some Food for Thought Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24364

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