OCdts. On Parade

Ex Cadet Tunnelling Field Course in Greece; a Case Study in Critical Thinking

By: 24662 Jeffrey Oke (RMC 2010)

I would like to take this opportunity to describe a positive experience that I have had within the graduate program (Masters) at RMC-Queen’s. I was recently involved in a graduate field course that encompassed a technical field portion at tunnel construction sites throughout Greece. In all, we visited over 15 tunnels in just 6 days. The magnitude and type of road and rail tunnel construction that is currently transforming Greece is not only impressive but also unprecedented – a Herculean feat of modern times.

The graduate course was organized by my advisors, Dr. Nicholas Vlachopoulos (19930) and Dr. Mark Diederichs. I was joined by fellow graduate students from Queen’s University, It was an exceptional and unique educational opportunity. Rarely are such opportunities afforded to graduate students or engineering professionals, so I am truly grateful for the experience.

I arrived in Athens in late December, apparently bringing the Canadian weather along with me. The temperature in Athens quickly dropped to a balmy 5-10 degrees Celsius. So for those of you who think I chose this course just to get a tan, you’re exactly right. But the winter weather refused to cooperate.

Photo: Jeff Oke, standing beside forepole machine at Platanou Tunnel as part of the Corinthus-Patras Motorway

My research for my Masters degree concentrates on improving or optimizing temporary tunnel support structures within weak rock masses utilizing conventional excavation construction techniques. The graduate field course was a perfect fit, focused primarily on tunnelling construction and relevant geological engineering considerations associated with such construction in weak rock masses. Greece’s rocks are an extension of the Alpine system of Europe and pose significant challenges to design engineers. I completed an undergraduate Civil Engineering degree at the Royal Military College of Canada as a cadet, and believe that I was able to excel within this program due to my past work experience in construction; but nothing could have prepared me for the complexity and scope of the massive construction projects that we witnessed first-hand.

From the onset, I believed that this field trip would provide me with some hands-on experience relevant to my research. However, I was surprised to develop additional skills and knowledge. No, I didn’t learn to speak Greek. It took me 4 long years at RMC just to obtain a basic understanding of French, so clearly, a week wasn’t going to cut it. But, beyond the geotechnical components, I also developed a better understanding of critical thinking.

Photo: Canadian graduate students and advisors in Thessaloniki Metro, Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) construction. (Jeff Oke front row 3rd right; Nicholas  Vlachopoulos, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at the Royal Military College of Canada back row, right.)

The trip was organized in conjunction with the graduate program from the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA). The primary organizer from NTUA was Dr. Paul Marinos, a world-renowned tunnelling professor. Throughout the trip, the course advisor set up many exercises for us to think about as we traveled between sites. Generally, we were instructed to come up with design considerations as well as conclusions on relevant issues and problems based on very limited information. Comparing answers with my fellow students, it became apparent that there was no single, clear answer and that the issues were quite complex in nature. Each of us had a well thought-out answer, however, due to the lack of information (which is a professional reality), assumptions had to be made to find suitable solutions. These assumptions varied across the group. Answers also varied due to our areas of expertise. I was the only student with a structural civil engineering background. The majority of the other students were geological engineers.

It began to dawn on me that each of these answers were correct as long as their initial assumptions were correct. There is no true solution to a problem but a variety of solutions that can be applied. In most cases, determining the missing information (i.e. rock strength at 200m depth) with further geotechnical investigations would cost thousands or even millions of dollars. These multiple, massive construction projects cost billions of dollars each. No single project of this scale is currently underway in Canada, let alone many concurrent projects, as there are in Greece. Judging from these projects, there seems to be no evidence of Greece’s recent economic problems. For projects such as these, designers would also have to make decisions based on the limited information. This is where critical thinking must come into play. Not only did we, the graduate students, need to find a solution to the problem, we also had to consider all of the possible solutions to the problem as well as the influence of multiple, relevant parameters.

The military training that I have received during BOTP taught me to think of multiple solutions using the estimate process to address a problem. These military challenges at my level of training were relatively simple and straight forward and most of the information was provided. Aside from the cultural aspect, this trip has not only increased my knowledge of geological engineering and design considerations, it has also increased my understanding of the importance of critical thinking and thoroughly thinking through a particular problem.

I am truly grateful for this great experience and thank my thesis advisors for the unique opportunity. I also made many new friends and had a wonderful cultural experience. International collaborations such as these add a lot of value to a graduate program and allow for a true exchange of ideas between distinct points of view. I look forward to taking advantage of similar professional experiences in the future and the successful completion of my degree program.

Truth, Duty, Valour,

Jeffrey Oke (24662)

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