Farthing returns from sabbatical and teaching in northern Italy

Published April 8, 2019
Farthing returns from sabbatical and teaching in northern Italy

Matthew Farthing, a research hydraulic engineer at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory and his colleague, Mario Putti, outside the mathematics department at the University of Padua in Padua, Italy. Farthing spent a year on sabbatical teaching a graduate level mathematical engineering course at the university.

VICKSBURG, Miss. (April 5, 2018) -- The old world charm and culture of the Italian city of Padua was just one of the many high points Mathew Farthing experienced while in Italy on sabbatical from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center. Farthing, a research hydraulic engineer in ERDC’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory, spent the last year teaching a graduate level mathematical engineering course at the University of Padua, the second-oldest university in Italy and the world’s fifth-oldest surviving university. 

“Sabbaticals are a lesser-known component of the ERDC training and professional development program,” said Farthing. “As a counterpart to long term training, a sabbatical can be a great opportunity to grow professionally and personally.”

The ERDC training office says the sabbatical program is offered to ERDC employees to develop competence in their official duties for maximum achievement of mission goals and objectives. The sabbatical must result in a product, service, report or study that will benefit the ERDC and increase the employee's effectiveness.

Farthing became interested in the sabbatical program when a longtime friend and colleague suggested that he come teach at Padua. “We had talked about it before,” said Farthing. “I thought, ‘yeah, I should.’” As a professor, he could perform a service that would not only benefit the ERDC, but his personal growth as well.

After speaking with his family and supervisor, he started the required paperwork and applied online to teach in the university’s mathematical engineering program. The program allows for foreign professionals to come and teach master level classes in English to help strengthen student familiarity with English and other research on an international level.

The University of Padua was founded in 1222 and is located in northern Italy’s Veneto region. Notable alumni included Nicolaus Copernicus, the renaissance-era mathematician and astronomer, and Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer who was also the chair of mathematics between 1592 and 1610. The university is structured differently than most American universities, with students attending for five years, the first three equivalent to undergraduate level and the last two equivalent to graduate level. “Computational people in the lab – and in ERDC, I think – have a lot of difficulty finding people with a skill set of an engineering background and math – especially on the master’s level,” said Farthing. “You don’t find many programs that have this all fit together so exclusively.”

Many of the mathematical concepts Farthing taught can be applied to projects in CHL. As part of the ERDC, CHL addresses an entire spectrum of water resource challenges in groundwater, watersheds, rivers, reservoirs, estuaries, harbors, coastal inlets and wetlands. “The idea is the opportunity to bring others from other fields – from other areas of math – into applications you don’t see as much maybe if you’re kind of going down a computational pathway,” he said.

However, teaching in a foreign country did have its challenges. “I was a little surprised at sort of the expectations of the way the Italians teach,” said Farthing. “Their expectation going in was that I would lecture for 2 hours, and they would write everything down. I had this vision of interactive computational notebooks and lots of back and forth. We ended up with a compromise in the end I think. They got more comfortable asking questions, and I got better at delivering the material in a more structured way.”

The class structure is different as well. “There’s no midterms or anything. When you schedule exams, they could be 6 months later or 3 months later or next year - exams are all oral,” he said. “It’s something that carries over through their whole education system.” A fact his own children weren’t too happy about.

Farthing was able to bring his family along with him to Italy. He said it was difficult at first dealing with the Italian bureaucracy, learning to live in tighter spaces and having the kids go to a school taught in a foreign language, but the experience of meeting new people, learning a new language and seeing the history and culture of the Italian people was definitely worth it.

Farthing suggests speaking with your family, your branch chief and team members before applying for a sabbatical to get them on board. “If anyone has any questions, I’d be happy to share my forms and let them see what I did,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity.”