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More than 100 students have worked in Professor Gary Litton's group doing hands-on research over the years.

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Pacific News

Professor Gary Litton selected for 2014 Distinguished Faculty Award

Litton won Pacific's highest teaching prize for his personal attention to each student and his emphasis on experiential learning, an approach that enables students to learn by doing.
May 9, 2014

Gary Litton's students over the past two decades will get this: Will the fish live or die?

For the winner of University of the Pacific's 2014 Distinguished Faculty Award and chairman of Pacific's Department of Civil Engineering, it is quite clear — fish have much to do with civil engineering.

"That's the setting for many of the questions I raise in undergraduate lectures," said Litton. "For example, we have ammonia that's been discharged by the city of Stockton in the San Joaquin River, the pH is such and such, the concentration is this, we have all this mixing together. Will the fish live or die?"

Often the answer is: "It depends."

Nevertheless, research conducted by Litton and his students in the San Joaquin River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta over the past 20 years has resulted in "dramatic improvements" in water quality — and fewer dead fish.

Research at Mono Lake
Research projects at places like Mono Lake (above), Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Tuolomne Meadows allow students a chance to use the tools they honed in the classroom and laboratory to develop answers to water quality questions.

Litton won Pacific's highest teaching prize for his personal attention to each student and his emphasis on experiential learning, an approach that enables students to learn by doing.

Over the years 107 students have worked in Litton's group doing hands-on research, something they might not have had a chance to do at another university.

"The thing that really drives me with teaching is the desire to give students the opportunity to see things first-hand, to actually roll up their sleeves and get direct experience at seeing fundamentals in water quality," said Litton. 

"I love to take students on field trips to the High Sierra and Mono Lake," he said. 

Students are able to take water quality measurements at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and at Tuolumne Meadows, and compare those to Mono Lake. That allows students a chance to use the tools they honed in the classroom and laboratory to develop answers to water quality questions.

Litton reminds his students that civil engineers are charged with being custodians of the natural environment, not just developing infrastructure.

Some of the research projects over the past 20 years were "kind of crazy," admitted Litton. One project involved starting about 50 miles upstream of the Delta and taking measurements from a boat as it floated downstream. That meant sometimes being on the water for days at a time.

 "I truly love teaching and I love sharing my years of experience. I really feel fortunate to be in an environment where I can connect with virtually every student," said Litton. "I take a personal interest in them. When they don't come to class I will text them in the middle of class and say 'Where are you? Get out of the shower and get here.'"

"Dr. Litton is truly an outstanding faculty member based upon his contributions to Pacific students, scholarship in civil engineering and the administration and leadership of the Civil Engineering Department," wrote School of Engineering and Computer Science Dean Steven Howell in a letter supporting Litton's nomination.

Howell's letter pointed out that Litton carries a full-time teaching schedule and maintains "one of the most active and productive research agendas," one that has drawn more than $1.6 million in external funding, all while serving as department chair.

More than a teacher
Former student Matthew Lemmon '11, in another letter of support, told of being nervous taking an aquatic chemistry course taught by Litton. Lemmon wrote that Litton's supportive nature and approach to the course put him at ease.

Professor Gary Litton"I had never taken a class from someone as dedicated and enthusiastic about teaching as Dr. Litton," wrote Lemmon, who went on to earn a master's degree in civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis and now works for an engineering firm focusing on water issues. "His ability to combine course material with relevant examples from his research made each lecture interesting and engaging."

Another recent student said she still refers to notes she took in Litton's class.

"He provided me with mentoring, and a knowledge of the industry that has helped guide me on my career path today," wrote Margaret Rae Wild '12, an environmental engineer for a San Francisco consulting firm, in supporting the nomination.

Litton will receive a certificate from Pacific President Pamela A. Eibeck and recognition at the May 10 Commencement ceremony and again later that day at the School of Engineering and Computer Science Diploma and Hooding Ceremony. The award was established in 1974 for outstanding accomplishment by a tenured faculty member in teaching, research, creative endeavors and service to Pacific.

Rise of a teacher
Litton was born and raised in Riverside. His father was a certified photogrammetrist who often brought home the maps that he made. Studying those maps stirred in Litton an interest in outdoor activities such as hiking and orienteering, and piqued an interest in civil engineering.

His interest in teaching came when he took a backpacking class while at Riverside Community College, now Riverside City College. The instructor, William Wiley, became a mentor and Litton eventually worked with Wiley to teach the course.

"I really enjoyed teaching, but I also really enjoyed engineering," said Litton. "It took a while for the two to come together."

He earned his bachelor's degree at UC Irvine in 1980 and worked for a half dozen years at Lake Tahoe for the state of California working on water quality, an experience that piqued his interest in water quality issues.

Life at Pacific
Litton received his master's in civil engineering in 1990 and his doctorate in 1993, both from UC Irvine. He joined Pacific as an assistant professor of engineering soon afterward.

"It's been fantastic. It's been absolutely a super fit for me," Litton said of his more than 20 years at Pacific. "I still pinch myself every time I drive to work in the morning. I really enjoy working with students. Life has been good."

Litton is quick to credit his colleagues for a measure of his success.

"I work with some really special people. I give nothing but praise and thanks to my colleagues whom I've had here for 20 years," said Litton. "They are incredibly dedicated. I owe so much of my happiness and success to their contributions to our university, our department and my life."

Mark Brunell, associate professor of biological sciences, was in the boat with Litton on some of those research projects and co-authored reports on water quality.

"The longer I know him, and the better I know him, the more I respect and admire him," Brunell wrote in a letter supporting Litton's nomination for the award. "I consider him to be the ideal teacher in that he has a sense of duty to the students that cannot be put into words."

Past University Distinguished Faculty Award winners>>

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