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Dennis Johnson

Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences Chair

Dennis Johnson

Talk to Dennis Johnson, assistant professor of environmental science at Juniata, about any aspect of college life and he can tell you about it.

Small college? Done that. The Phillipsburg native earned his bachelor's degree at Lock Haven University.

Not sure what to do after graduation? He's been there. "I was one of those guys whose adviser said 'You ought to go on and get your masters and I kept going,'" Johnson says.

Worked for the government? He spent about a year as visiting scientist at the National Weather Service's Hydrological Research Laboratory in Silver Springs, Md. He also worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, studying how water scours out bridge supports.

Worked in a university setting purely as a researcher? He earned his master's and doctorate at Penn State in the College of Engineering and was hired as an assistant professor upon graduation -- working entirely on a NASA research project. He also built his own research program in hydrological engineering at Michigan Technical University from 1997 to 1999, before coming to Juniata.

"What is nice here is that you can do research because you want to do it, not because you have to in order to keep your job," Johnson says.

"The trend today is toward hands-on experiential education," explains Paula Martin, associate professor of environmental science. "I have been amazed at Denny's skill in that area and that comes from his problem-solving background as an engineer."

Johnson claims he went into engineering because he understands numbers on an intuitive level. "I have to be able to visualize exactly what I'm doing in order to understand it," he says. "That's why I became a hydrologist, because I can see water and how it works,"

Johnson found his innate numerical knowledge served him well as his education coincided with the rise in the use of the personal computer. In job after job he found himself writing computer code for large projects. "I'm not a computer coding expert but you tell me what you want a program to do and I will get it to work," he says.

Johnson has branched out beyond environmental science and taken an assignment in the College's Information Technology department. Much of his research program is computer-based, particularly using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). To date, Juniata students have mapped flood insurance zones in Mifflin County and mapped the Juniata campus. This summer, Johnson and a team of students will monitor wetlands where the I-99 interstate extension is being built.

"Denny's approach to teaching really resonates with our students, many of whom are first-generation college students," Martin says. Johnson says that the ability to just crunch numbers is much less important than being able to work on a team, communicate effectively and understand how a project fits into a whole -- all values he strives to pass along to students.

"I think I'm probably a better engineer having taught here at Juniata than I was when I was actually working as an engineer," he says. "I get to do it all."

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