Visiting Civil Engineering's Sweet Spot

Armando Tabernilla (E '81) helps expose students to grand civil engineering challenges in south Florida

As far as wanting to give back to your alma mater to benefit the student experience goes, Armando Tabernilla (E ’81) may have found the sweetest solution out there.

Last spring break, Tabernilla helped organize a week-long civil engineering spectacle for a half-dozen Duke students in the delicate ecosystems of southern Florida. As vice president and general counsel at Florida Crystals, a sugar cane producer headquartered in West Palm Beach, Florida, Tabernilla was able to give the students an extensive tour of his company’s vast civil engineering infrastructure, and serve as a touchstone to open doors to several other large civil engineering operations in the region.

Florida Crystals’ almost 300-square-mile operation relies on civil engineering for key infrastructure. Sustainability is a key component of its corporate philosophy and its largest plant operates on a negative carbon balance by burning leftover biomass to power the plant and put electricity bank into the grid.

But that achievement in engineering wasn’t even the most impressive part of the tour.

“Since we are north of the Florida Everglades and our runoff ultimately drains into the Everglades, our operations are subject to the strictest water quality standards and we employ numerous techniques to clean our runoff,” said Tabernilla. “We also showed the students some of the precision agricultural equipment that we use to plant, cultivate, and harvest our crops and explained how by using GPS and robotics we are able to improve production while using less fertilizer and fuel.”

During the rest of the week, Tabernilla was able to arrange visits to Florida Power and Light, Florida’s largest utility company, and the South Florida Water Management District, responsible for managing the areas’ flood control and water resources.  The students also visited the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District. Each experience exposed the students to different challenges faced by civil engineers and the types of jobs that could be waiting for them after graduation.

“I absolutely loved the trip. Attending was one of the best decisions I made my freshman year. It was a unique way to get hands-on experience in the field of CEE and learn about environmental issues in south Florida,” said Hailey Prevett, a rising sophomore in civil and environmental engineering. “My favorite part was when we visited the South Florida Water Management District, where we toured a man-made wetland that helps keep the fragile ecosystem of the Everglades free from harmfully excessive levels of nutrients and protects residents of Florida from flooding in the case of a tropical storm. I was simply awestruck by the volume of water that SFWMD has engineered and how well they have done it.”

The trip was part of a CEE program designed to raise the profile of civil engineering careers to students. Over the past few years, students have visited ongoing projects in New York City, Puerto Rico, Miami and south Florida thanks to generous volunteer work by alumni such as Tabernilla.

It’s a program that will continue for the foreseeable future.

“I wanted to help give the students an appreciation of the complexity of agribusiness operations and the many activities and disciplines that must come together to make it work,” said Tabernilla, who says he plans to help host future trips as well.  “The ability to see civil engineering in practice, in a real business rather than a classroom, is invaluable.”

Any students interested in joining future civil engineering field trips can contact Rich Kells at rich.kells@duke.edu