Patrick Burns (HBS ’14) met Dr. David Hurwitz, associate professor of transportation engineering in the Oregon State University School of Civil and Construction Engineering (CCE), during one of the faculty-student matching receptions the Honors College offers to connect students with potential thesis advisors. He didn’t know it at the time, but Burns had found a mentor who would seek out opportunities for him and prompt him to take risks that would start him on an unexpected path through graduate school to his present career. It is impact like this that led to Hurwitz’s recognition as the 2017 Thomas and Margaret Meehan Oregon State University Honors College Eminent Mentor.
Burns recalls, as he worked through the steps of his research tracking the visual attention of bicyclists, Hurwitz’s exceptional ability to understand the needs of students and supportively guide them. For Burns, that meant teaching the research process to an undergraduate who had never engaged in such a large undertaking – especially because his project involved the challenging task of working with human subjects. “He started with me at ground zero with the process of a literature review, outlining all the steps needed for something as rigorous as a thesis. It helped make it achievable and not as daunting. He gives you the basis of what you need and helps you come up with solutions on your own,” Burns says.
Amy Wyman (HBS ’17) also worked with Hurwitz on her Honors College thesis, “Implications of Red Signal Countdown Timers on Visual Attention of Oregon Drivers.” She says Hurwitz supported her in many ways during her time at Oregon State, connecting her with opportunities and even presenting her with the Civil Engineering Student of the Year award, which honors one CCE graduating senior. “That was an incredible honor,” Wyman says. “He cultivated a supportive learning environment that challenged me, but I was never afraid to ask questions because he makes himself so approachable.”
In recognition of this dedication, Wyman nominated Hurwitz for the Meehan Eminent Mentor award, and he was chosen by a panel of fellow faculty to receive this unique honor. Hurwitz – whose own research examines human factors in transportation, traffic control and safety – spends a significant amount of time working on civil engineering education. As chair of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Committee on Faculty Development, he is involved in selecting faculty members nationwide to take part in ASCE’s ExCEED program, a six-day workshop where engineering professors can enhance their teaching. Hurwitz participated himself and has mentored other participants for five years. In 2014, he received the ExCEED New Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award. He is also the chair-elect of the Pacific Northwest Section of the American Society for Engineering Education and the vice chair of the Transportation Education Council, part of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.
The Honors College Eminent Mentor Award recognizes outstanding and innovative teaching and mentorship within the college. The award was created in 2015 with funds from the Margaret and Thomas Meehan Honors College Professorship Fund, an estate gift from Margaret Meehan. Margaret Meehan built the Honors Program at Oregon State, which preceded the Honors College, while she was director from 1974 to 1986. Both Margaret and Thomas Meehan were faculty members in the Department of History and were exceptionally committed to students.
While in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he earned his BS, MS and PhD degrees, Hurwitz founded his own firm, gaining professional experience as a traffic engineering consultant for a variety of clients over five years. When he completed his dissertation, though, he decided not to continue in business, joining the Oregon State faculty instead. “The reason I came here to OSU and the reason I’m an academic and not a practicing engineer is that I enjoy working with students. The notion that I can play some role in facilitating the success of students is exciting,” he says.
Mentorship for Hurwitz means first finding students who have a passion for what they do and, because of that passion, want to work hard. He cultivates the kind of collaboration he himself appreciates as an engineer. “I’d much rather work with a team of folks passionate about what we’re studying, sitting in front of a whiteboard with students and developing research questions of interest,” Hurwitz says. He gives students space to develop approaches and connects them with opportunities to support them in what they want to achieve and explore.
Burns says Hurwitz saw one such opportunity when he asked Burns to create a poster for a presentation at a conference. “It sounds like a trivial thing, but he knew it would be something very helpful for me, and he pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Burns says.
Hurwitz also connected Burns with other faculty at Oregon State and encouraged him to continue his research. “He’s the reason I got involved in graduate studies at OSU. I thank him immensely for that. I had no intention of doing research in grad school, and it’s because of him that I got to work with those professors and even travel for site work,” Burns says.
Collaborative learning for Hurwitz is not just about building a team – it’s more like a family, which is important for students away from home, often for the first extended time. He encourages conversations between undergraduate, masters and PhD students and fosters diversity. At times many students in the lab have been women or international students, which he says leads to wider-reaching research and networks. “I’m a firm believer in the notion that more diversity generates better outcomes,” he says. “That’s been authentic to my experience in graduate school and something I’ve tried to instill in the lab and the program here at OSU.”
This community was important to Wyman during her time at OSU. “I had a fulfilling undergraduate experience, and I owe a lot of that to Dr. Hurwitz. The civil engineering community really anchored me, and my work with Dr. Hurwitz was a big part of feeling like I’d found a place for myself at such a large school,” Wyman says. Hurwitz supported her each step of the way on the path through her studies. “Dr. Hurwitz ended up being not just my thesis mentor but also sort of a life mentor as I was figuring out what to do. He gave me guidance on decisions I was struggling to make.”
Hurwitz strives to understand students’ goals and help them succeed in their particular interests while at OSU and beyond. He’s proud that every student who’s completed an Honors College thesis – or MS or PhD – with him has found a position in their desired field, whether working at a tech startup, a national research lab, pursuing graduate school or working in a civil engineering firm with a 100-year history. He continues to research and publish and connect with students even after they’ve ventured outside the classrooms and laboratories of Oregon State. “I don’t think a week goes by that I haven’t talked to a former student,” Hurwitz says.
Burns is grateful to Hurwitz, particularly for giving him a solid foundation for graduate school, which ultimately led him to his current role as a design engineer for a structural engineering firm in Seattle. “Without the opportunities I had with Dr. Hurwitz, I don’t think I’d be with the company I am today,” Burns says.
And Wyman, a traffic engineer with the firm with the 100-year history, Burgess & Niple in Tempe, Arizona, says she owes Dr. Hurwitz a great deal for her undergraduate experience and her career now. “Basically, I want to be the kind of mentor to someone else one day that Dr. Hurwitz was to me. His energy, positivity, work ethic, genuineness and the time he makes for his students is inspiring.”