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REFRACTIONS - By Henry Petroski

Pushing PowerPoint

A masterly lecturer brings construction to life.

Photo: HENRY PETROSKI - Strikingly detailed animation sequences show cranes in action, concrete being placed for foundations, and steel hoisted into place to build towers.Raymond Paul Giroux is an engineer with 33 years’ experience with the Kiewit Corp., one of the giants in the heavy-construction industry. Like many an engineer in his line of work, Giroux has moved around the country as one job was completed and a new one started. He and his family lived in Boston while he was part of the team building the Big Dig’s Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, and they moved to the hills beyond Berkeley when he began working on the new East Bay span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Even when he settles down in one place, Giroux travels for his company, and so he spends a lot of time in airports, on planes, and in hotel rooms. Some years ago he decided to make use of that time by reading the history of great engineering projects, especially those with anniversaries approaching: the Brooklyn Bridge turned 125 years old in 2008; Hoover Dam hit 75 in 2010; and the Golden Gate Bridge is 75 this year. To help commemorate those events, Giroux prepared lectures about the building of the structures.

I have had the good fortune of hearing all three talks, albeit on three different occasions to three different kinds of audience. I heard him speak to civil engineers and geologists at an ASCE history and heritage symposium commemorating the anniversary of the dedication of Hoover Dam; to a class of first-year engineering students about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge; and to a general audience about the Golden Gate Bridge.

All three lectures were extremely well received. Giroux communicates the essence of engineering and construction in a way that is meaningful to professional engineers, scientists, students, and laypersons alike. His integration of human interest stories with the technical details and societal implications of engineering and construction is a model of communication and motivation.

All of Giroux’s talks are illustrated with PowerPoint slides, but his are not the kind of interminable bulleted lists that have made the Microsoft software and the slide shows that result from it objects of ridicule. Indeed, the most common question that seems to arise in the minds of those who hear a Giroux talk is what software he used to create the strikingly detailed animation sequences that show construction cranes in action, concrete being placed for foundations, and steel hoisted into place to build towers. The action-filled slides are definitely a highlight of a Giroux presentation.

As he will readily admit, there is no special or esoteric software employed. However, in the mind and hands of a master like Giroux, the drawing and animation features of PowerPoint are enough to bring a construction site alive on the projection screen.

It is not just his dazzling animation sequences that make his talks so engrossing and well-received. Giroux also personalizes his talks to make their message even more immediate for the speaking venue. When he spoke at my institution, for example, he gave the audience a sense of the magnitude of the Golden Gate Bridge by stacking up beside an elevation of one of the bridge’s towers multiple scaled images of the Duke Chapel tower, beneath which most students and faculty walk daily.

Giroux’s talks on great construction projects are unique in their design and animation. His PowerPoint presentations do not comprise a series of static bulleted lists punctuated by static images. Rather, his kinetic slide shows convey the vibrant energy that permeates any construction site. He captures the excitement of engineering in action, and he communicates it to his audiences with a clarity and an enthusiasm that are rare in the seminar room today.


Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest books are An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession and To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure.


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