The competition is to build a retention wall, six inches tall and six inches wide, that doesn’t crumble into a tiny landslide.
The building material is “manufactured sand” made of granite rocks crushed into pieces the size of sand grains that are denser and hold together better when compacted.
The prize is a knit cap in University of Tennessee at Chattanooga blue and gold, emblazoned with the Power C logo. Also on the line are whatever bragging rights come from a “Best Wall” contest in a lab full of civil engineering students.
Chris Frishcosy, director of labs for the Department of Civil Engineering at UTC, weaves through the groups of three and four students in his “Intro to Civil Engineering” course.
Asking questions. Offering advice. Explaining. Smiling. Laughing. Connecting.
“They think I’m younger than I am,” said Frishcosy, who certainly looks younger than his 29 years. “I’ve had multiple students, after my first lecture, come up and say, ‘We thought you were a classmate that was just standing up there and talking for some reason.’”
Frishcosy’s teaching style is a smooth, steady flow of enthusiasm.
“I love engineering,” he said. “I love the fundamental principles, to understand how the world works and trying to design something to fit the needs of people while working with the environment that we’re given.”
Linen Cooper, a sophomore civil engineering major, took Frishcosy’s “Intro to Civil Engineering” course in spring 2022 and described him as “always enthusiastic.”
“He is generous with his time when it involves further elaboration and clarification inside and outside of the classroom. With these added efforts, it shows that Frishcosy is more than willing to go the extra mile,” said Cooper, who graduated high school from the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.
Lauren Brownfield, a senior in civil engineering, called Frishcosy “a positive influence.”
“His energy and enthusiasm for the material he’s teaching definitely rubs off on the students,” said Brownfield who graduated from Walker Valley High School in Cleveland, Tennessee.
“He works hard to establish connections between upperclassmen and underclassmen within the department, which I think is very valuable for newer students,” she said.
Due in part to his teaching style and rapport with students, Frishcosy has been nominated for the 2023 Young Engineer of the Year award from the Chattanooga chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Winners will be announced Feb. 21.
“Being nominated for the Young Engineer of the Year award gives me a deep feeling of acceptance in my involvement at UTC and developing relationships within Chattanooga,” Frishcosy said. “Having dealt with moments of imposter syndrome throughout my first year here, it is comforting and encouraging to be supported to this extent.”
While he loves civil engineering, Frishcosy knows that’s not the case for all students. Since joining UTC in 2021, he has worked to make the lab fun. Students examine the properties of mixed concrete by making fruit jam. They build bridges using toothpicks and marshmallows. They use bags of potato chips and corn chips to study the principles of compression and friction in soil compaction.
“If people don’t have that initial—I guess ‘glee’—about this subject, how do we make it more fun? If you’re going to be hands-on, why not commit to it?” said Frishcosy, an avid hiker and traveler who has been to New Zealand, the Philippines and Brazil, among several other countries.
In the labs, students test the strength of concrete under pressure; they analyze soil to determine how it may react to heavy rains; bridges are designed to ensure that they can support their own weight.
He works with engineering professors to design a lab curriculum that complements what’s being taught in the classroom.
“I’m looking at what the students are going to be doing during the coursework,” he said. “What activities are going to help them gain the knowledge of the classroom material? What equipment do they need to perform the experiments or activities? What kind of research are we going to do?”
A graduate of Pelion High School in Columbia, South Carolina, Frishcosy began college as a chemical engineering major at the University of South Carolina. In his sophomore year, he wasn’t feeling the excitement he thought he should, and a professor suggested he take a look at civil engineering.
The click was almost instantaneous, Frishcosy said.
“I’m a very tangible person, and all of it was just so tangible. You could leave a classroom and see what its purpose was,” he said.
“You have these natural forces, these natural systems that we live in. Then you have the needs of people. How do you design or what can you work with to fit them together?”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of South Carolina in 2017 and a master’s in civil engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2019.
Along with his lab duties at UTC, he teaches “Introduction to Civil Engineering,” a survey course covering the variety of fields that fall under the civil engineering banner.
“They come in here and they learn about all these other systems and people end up specializing engineering, whether someone’s an agricultural engineer, a structural engineer, a site civil engineer. The knowledge of how these subsets zip it together is where engineering comes from,” he explained.
To give students a broad view of engineering, he brings full-time engineers in different fields to talk about projects they have worked on and how they solved any problems that cropped up.
“People become passionate about one of the topics, but it’s not exclusive of an interest in the others,” Frishcosy said. “For example, if you’re working as a structural engineer, you’re going to have to communicate with the geotechnical engineers. If you’re a geotech engineer, you’re looking at loads from a structural standpoint and also drainage.
“There’s this overlap that I find very enjoyable, and I think our students—I hope—find that as well.”