James K. Mitchell, of Blacksburg, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Via Emeritus Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, has received the prestigious 2006 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Outstanding Projects and Leaders (OPAL) Award for Education.

“I am very greatly honored and humbled to receive this award given by those who have gone before and all the equally deserving civil engineers,” Mitchell said.

The OPAL Awards have become the pre-eminent awards program for civil engineers, recognizing the lifetime achievements of civil engineers whose contributions have greatly enhanced the health, safety and economy of our nation and the world. The award, which includes outstanding civil engineering leaders whose accomplishments have made significant differences in design, construction, public works, education and management, was presented to Mitchell at April 26 gala banquet at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.

"I can't think of a more deserving recipient for the OPAL award than Jim Mitchell,” said William Knocke, head of the Via Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. “His life-long commitment to civil engineering education comes through in all that he has done and continues to do in support of the education of many involved in our profession. Students come away from their interactions with Jim with a very positive feeling about his high level of concern for their well being."

“The creativity, vision and leadership of an OPAL award winner should be an inspiration to all civil engineers,” said ASCE President Dennis R. Martenson. “Not only do they contribute to the advancement of the civil engineering profession, but more importantly, their work contributes to the improvement of the world's health, safety and economy, which elevates the quality of life for people everywhere. Jim has made many contributions to the civil engineering education community during his career, and his research on soil behavior issues and solutions has had an immeasurable impact on the practice of geotechnical engineering.”

Mitchell served as one of the leading engineers who assisted the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with its moon landings and developed a basic understanding of how lunar soils behave. He has contributed influential work on the chemistry and treatment of hazardous wastes in groundwater and helped understand how soils behave during earthquakes. He currently is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ External Review Panel that is reviewing the work conducted within the Army Corps of Engineers and the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force regarding Hurricane Katrina and its effect on New Orleans.

Mitchell has served as chairman of the Geotechnical Board of the National Research Council and vice president of the International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering. He served as secretary, vice chairman and chairman of the U.S. National Committee for the International Society for Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering, and as chair of the Civil Engineering Section of the National Academy of Engineering. He recently chaired the National Academies’ Committee on Organizing to Manage Construction and Infrastructure in the 21st Century Bureau of Reclamation and is chairing a committee that is evaluating the long term performance of engineered waste containment barriers.

Following several months as a soil engineer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Miss., he served for two years on active duty in the U.S. Army in the U.S. and Germany. In 1958, he joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley and held the Edward G. Cahill and John R. Cahill Chair in the Department of Civil Engineering at the time of his retirement from Berkeley in 1993. While at Berkeley, he served as Research Engineer in the Institute of Transportation Studies and in the Earthquake Engineering Research Center. He developed and taught graduate courses in soil behavior, soil and site improvement, and foundation engineering as part of the Geotechnical Engineering Program within the Civil Engineering Department. From 1979 through 1984, Mitchell served as chairman of the Department of Civil Engineering.

In 1993, Mitchell was appointed the first Charles E. Via, Jr. Professor in the Via Department of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech in 1994, University Distinguished Professor in 1996, and University Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, in 1999. He continues with research and graduate student supervision at Virginia Tech.

During his career, Mitchell has advised 74 Ph.D. students and has written more than 350 publications, including the graduate level text and geotechnical reference, "Fundamentals of Soil Behavior." His writings on seismic strengthening of dams are considered a classic contribution to the profession, and he has conducted research in such areas as soil behavior related to geotechnical problems, mitigation of ground failure risk during earthquakes and environmental geotechnics.

Mitchell's contributions to the engineering profession have granted him numerous honors and awards. The recipient of the Norman Medal, Walter L. Huber Research Prize and the Terzaghi Lecture Award, Mitchell also has received the Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Mitchell was elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering in 1976 and the National Academy of Sciences in 1998, the most prestigious engineering and scientific organizations in the country.

Mitchell received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, his master's and Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Share this story