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Kyle Douglas honored for excellence in teaching

Concrete has an outsized role in climate change. Civil and environmental engineering lecturer Kyle Douglas is inspiring a new generation of engineers and architects how to use it sustainably.

Kyle Douglas receiving the Excellence in Teaching Award from Arun Majumdar
Douglas received the Excellence in Teaching Award from Dean Majumdar during the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability commencement ceremony on June 16. (Image credit: Paul Sakuma)

Kyle Douglas, PhD ’07, Structural Engineering, a research engineer and lecturer in civil and environmental engineering, has earned the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. In nominating letters, several of Douglas’ students praised his patience as a mentor, engaging and innovative lecture style, and devotion to his field. Though all of Douglas’ nominators were his students, any faculty member, staff, or student can recommend a nominee for the annual award.

“It is as simple as his tone that you can feel his love for what he is teaching, as well as brushing in a few small side stories here and there that keep us interested,” one nominator wrote. “He creates projects where we design something that is actually practical that can be used by us in the future.”

“He also strongly drives [home] the fact that all of us have the ability to make change in our fields, especially in sustainability in the built environment,” wrote another.

Clad in a Cardinal baseball cap and fleece, a humble Douglas chalked it all up to a sheer love for teaching. “Teaching is my absolute favorite thing at Stanford. This is all I want to do with my life. I am extremely fulfilled in doing it,” he said.

Douglas’ Stanford career began a decade ago with a part-time research engineer position developing online courses with Sarah Billington, now chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Billington, who is the UPS Foundation Professor and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, is an expert in the built environment. Douglas is a structural engineer with a deep understanding of the central role – and key challenges – of concrete in the world today. Soon after joining Billington’s lab, Douglas took on classroom duties as a lecturer.

“In 2015, I got to teach my first class,” Douglas recalled. “It was a class that I got to create myself. Now, I teach five classes, graduate and undergraduate. I teach energy-efficient buildings (CEE 176A), which is where I kind of cross over into sustainability.”

“As the sustainability community ramps up for its most consequential decades in history, the role of the teaching engineer has never been more important. Kyle Douglas embodies what makes for a great teacher – knowledge, passion, and purpose meeting creativity and commitment,” said Arun Majumdar, dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. “Great teachers like Kyle are inspiring a can-do spirit in the next generation of engineers who will play a key role in determining the sustainability of planet Earth. That so many students have written to nominate him is only further proof of his influence. Well done, Kyle.”

Return on investment

Concrete is ubiquitous in roads, bridges, and buildings for a reason. It’s affordable, easy to mold and manipulate, and durable. But concrete comes at a steep sustainability cost. It is energy intensive to make and it releases carbon dioxide as it cures. Estimates are that cement, the main ingredient of concrete, produces as much as 8% of all greenhouse gases globally.

In Billington’s lab, Douglas contributes to an effort to make concrete stronger and more resilient to get longer life out of the concrete we choose to use today. Douglas calls it “low-embodied carbon” concrete. This responsibility places a tremendous burden on engineers to use concrete judiciously to make it more sustainable.

“If I put up a building that is supposed to last 50 years, then an earthquake comes along and it needs to be replaced, I’ve now put up two buildings to serve the same purpose,” Douglas said. “There’s an engineering cost to that concrete. But what are we getting for the cost? If you are potentially reducing the embodied carbon by 20% or 30%, that might be worth it.”

Something natural

That spirit of purpose and desire to maximize impact drives Douglas to be a better teacher. “I love teaching,” he added. “It’s something that I have fun doing. It’s a very self-motivated type of work for me. I want my lectures to be engaging.”

Asked to assess what it is in his teaching style that sets him apart, Douglas thought for a moment before answering.

“I’ll be honest,” he said. “There’s a performative aspect to it. I surprise myself, because I’m typically kind of a shy person. When I’m teaching, I can talk about things and make things lively.”

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