GoAbroad Interview

Dr. Farook Hamzeh - Assistant Professor of Engineering

Dr. Farook Hamzeh - Assistant Professor of Engineering

After spending over ten years living abroad, Dr. Hamzeh returned to his alma mater in 2011 to work as an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. Dr. Hamzeh earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the American University of Beirut in 1997 and 2000, respectively. After finishing his master’s degree, he decided to pursue two more degrees in civil and environmental engineering from the University of California-Berkeley, earning a master’s degree in 2006 and a Ph.D. in 2009. Following graduation, Dr. Hamzeh worked at Colorado State University before returning to Beirut.

You worked at Colorado State University before moving back to Beirut to teach at AUB. What inspired you to take your career back to your alma mater?

Teaching at Colorado State University was a great start for my career in construction management, since the school has a good relationship with the industry and leads one of the biggest programs in construction management. Since my main area of research has been in lean construction, which has to do with re-shaping an organization’s culture to adopt a continuous learning approach to reducing waste and adding value, I thought that my home country needed my expertise the most. In fact, the need to be closer to family and the desire to make a positive change in my native land were the major factors in my decision to come back to teach at my alma mater AUB.

Entrants of the Sumo-Robotics competition at the American University of Beirut

With first year engineering students during the Sumo-Robotics student competition

What is your favorite part about working for the American University of Beirut?

One of the most exciting aspects of being a faculty member at AUB is the interaction with students. Working with undergraduate as well as graduate students who have acquired a good background in construction management, supervising their cutting edge research, and exploring new ideas is one of the biggest rewards for an educator. I’d also add to that the joy of working with undergraduate students on their projects or during course competitions, such as the Sumo-robotics competition and the bridge competition. The highly motivated engineering students at AUB are a strong enabler for many of the teaching methods I use in class, such as collaborative learning, in-class discussion forums, and simulation exercises.

You have a host of engineering degrees under your belt, from AUB as well as UC-Berkeley. How have your own educational experiences (both abroad and at home) fueled your career?

The most important thing I learned in life is that I am a student of this universe, and as I acquire more knowledge, it is opening new horizons to how much I do not know. My studies at AUB have prepared me well for working in the industry and for being a leader in construction management. After working for around seven years in the construction industry, the quest for knowledge and making sense of the world has left me asking for more.

The years I spent pursuing my PhD at Berkeley and living at the International House have shown me new perspectives about life. The most important of which is how to look at the world through the lenses of change, diversity, tolerance, compassion, and understanding.

I no longer look at civil engineering as only a field that just contributes to structures and projects that serve the public. I believe civil engineering is one way of contributing to the advancement of humanity through social interaction, collaborating with other disciplines, creating social justice, understanding where others come from, designing/delivering sustainable projects, and adding value to society.

This is what I bring to AUB: a new perspective based on the philosophy of lean, which calls for a collaborative and sustainable approach to adding value while reducing process and material waste.

Engineering students at the American University of Beirut

In class with Civil Engineering students participating in the “Parade of Trades” simulation game

What makes Beirut a great place to study abroad?

Beirut offers all that study-abroad students are looking for in terms of a thriving culture, natural beauty, diversity, and welcoming people. A short walk through Hamra Street (next to AUB) will treat students to a variety of cultural activities in art, music, literature, and more. People in Beirut are friendly and speak multiple different languages, including English and French; thus, making it easier to communicate with various slices of society. Beirut embodies the ethnic and religious diversity of the Lebanese people who descend from various ethnic backgrounds and nineteen religious sects.

Beirut hosts around twenty different universities and the biggest student body in Lebanon, making it easier to communicate with student groups from various universities. In addition, diverse projects, exhibitions, competitions, and events of different disciplines are continuously held across Beirut and nearby cities.

The Mediterranean around Beirut and the surrounding mountains contribute to the natural beauty of Beirut making it a special place to reside in. AUB has one of the best campuses in the world, located on a hill next to the shore, with excellent views of the Mediterranean in the forefront and snowcapped mountains in the background. 

How do you help inspire international students to take full advantage of their time abroad?

I encourage international students to engage in various cultural, social, and humanitarian activities in Beirut and Lebanon. Such engagements start with joining any of the AUB student clubs that cover a wide variety of interests, such as technical, social, cultural, sports, and more. These can help students build friends and visit different areas of Beirut and Lebanon.

But why stop at the university level when you can contribute to activities at the national level? 

Whether working on UN projects for refugees, contributing to USAID projects in rural areas, teaching underprivileged students, participating in environment protection programs, or training kids to act in plays, international students can leave a mark on the community while having fun, meeting many new people, and building their social, managerial, and technical skills. 

Machu Picchu, Peru

At Machu Picchu in Peru

You make it a point to truly connect with your students to expand their learning even further. How do you think the professors at AUB help make international students feel truly connected to the course subject as well as the campus and country?

Professors at AUB have different approaches to teaching based on their field, background, personality, etc. My teaching philosophy is centered on what the Greek historian Plutarch once said, “A mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled”. My role as a teacher is to wake up dormant forces, faculties, and talents by teaching students how to be independent thinkers and lifelong learners. I envision my classroom teaching as swimming lessons; it is not enough to show a person how to swim, learning comes by doing.

To increase student engagement, I often use in-class discussion forums, group work, and simulation games. I believe that teaching greatly depends on the active participation of students; that is why I focus more on inspiring students, preparing them to ask the right questions, and inviting them to look at issues from different angles and perspectives, rather than just throwing information at them that they should memorize. All my classes have a hands-on project component to analyze, understand, design, and improve a certain real life project or process. These projects not only teach students to apply what they learn, they stimulate their innovation and problem solving. Many of the good projects are later presented in international conferences or published in academic journals.

What does a typical day of work look like for you?

I always start my day reading; it gives me inspiration for the day. Then I work on my writing and research while my mind is still fresh. After lunch, I go about teaching my classes which are usually scheduled in the afternoon. Later I meet with my masters and PhD students to work on various research activities. After going home in the evening, I work on various class preparation tasks, administrative work, and research.

As an engineer, why do you think it is valuable (and/or necessary) for engineering students to study abroad?

Engineering has to do with finding solutions, creating better ways, and thinking outside the known boundaries. Studying abroad helps an engineering student realize new ways of thinking, encounter new problems that require ingenuity to solve, and see the world from a more humane perspective, a perspective where people from different nationalities, religions, and ethnicities share similar needs, concerns, and struggles.

Studying abroad can help students be more independent, learn some organizational skills, and improve their time management habits. Students who study abroad often acquire various social skills that help them boost their self-confidence and clear their vision into what they want to do with their life and their career. Students who study in Lebanon are similar to those joining an advanced laboratory, where one can experience unlimited hands-on access to real life problems and the ability to test different solutions and interventions.

Dr. Farook Hamzeh of the American University of Beirut

In the office at AUB

What do you think makes AUB different than other universities in the region?

Although AUB students are selected from the top crop of student pools every year, it is the quality of education they receive that makes them really special in the world. What differentiates AUB from other universities in the region is the liberal arts approach to education, where students learn how to think, how to be independent lifelong learners, and how to be good communicators in their own field and circles. AUB graduates often reach to leadership and high managerial positions within their organization fueled by the well rounded and balanced education they have acquired at AUB.

Moreover, AUB is considered as the vanguard institute in the Arab world in terms of freedom of thinking and creativity in expression. The pioneering research conducted at AUB and various collaboration initiatives with the national and regional industries place AUB among the top tier of leading institutions. AUB also hosts students and faculty from various countries and traditions, thus offering students a more holistic and international view of the world.

What is the most rewarding part about your job?

Just like farmers find the harvest time as the most rewarding part of farming, I find the success of my students in the world as the most rewarding. I am filled with joy whenever my graduate students come back and update me on how well they are doing in their jobs. I feel the same joy when I see my graduate students present in workshops and international conferences. Whenever a student of mine defends her/his thesis, I feel that all my efforts have been rewarded.

Sharing my research with scholars from around the world in journal publications and conference proceedings give me a sense of happiness that I am bringing contributions to science, and I am adding value to the world.