Every holiday season, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering becomes the scene of an intense competition.

The departmental tradition, now in its 17th year, pits faculty and staff against students in a passionately battled food drive, organized by Steve Wright, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of civil and environmental engineering, College of Engineering.

Each team attempts to gather more donations for the Washtenaw chapter of Food Gatherers. The victorious team claims bragging rights and the prized “Pork and Beans” trophy, a Campbell’s can and engraved plaque, which sits in a place of honor in Wright’s office.

“In my little scheming mind, it’s always important for the students to win a few more times, just enough to be incentivized,” Wright laughs. No matter who wins, the competition is never boring. “Some years, students take it upon themselves to retaliate,” he says. One year, they covered the outside of Wright’s office door in hundreds of pork-and-beans cans.

Steve Wright displays the “Pork and Beans” trophy, the prize in an annual food-gathering competition he organized. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

The annual competition, which began as a stress-relieving scheme by Wright and a graduate student in 1998, is one of the largest donations to the Washtenaw County branch of Food Gatherers. Last year, the final total of non-perishable food and cash donations added up to more than 8,000 pounds of food, their biggest donation to Food Gatherers yet.

Wright, who specializes in environmental and water resources engineering, has taught at U-M for 37 years. Michigan Engineering and the food drive have become family traditions: His younger son attended the College of Engineering and participated in the drive.

A first-generation college graduate, in Wright’s junior year at Washington State University he told one of his professors he was thinking of dropping out. “And my professor said, ‘Oh no, I was thinking you were going to be one of the people that gets a Ph.D.,’” Wright recalls. “And that planted the seed to do that.”

Wright went on to complete his Ph.D. at Caltech before joining U-M. In 2006, Wright was awarded the Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship, the university’s highest award for excellence in undergraduate teaching.

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Wright has traveled with students to study across the world. In 2008 and 2009, Wright took his students to Chile to study the environmental impact of proposed hydroelectric dams in the Patagonia area. U-M’s work with the U.S. Agency for International Development allowed Wright to take classes to Liberia for two summers.

Wright says that these international experiences have been remarkably rewarding for him and the students. “The circumstances in Liberia (post-civil wars) are so amazing. We were there to try and convince Liberian engineering and agriculture students that they were the future of the country, and to help them make opportunities that would benefit themselves as well as their country,” he says.

Q and A

What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

Some of the most meaningful moments are with the most difficult students — you have to figure out why they’re having struggles.

What can’t you live without?

The one thing that I really need to do is have a little bit of physical space, to get my own mind straightened out. Sometimes that gets hard to come by, with the winter semester’s teaching load. By the time April rolls around, I have to spend a weekend in my garden to get some balance back in my life.

What is your favorite spot on campus?

The Arb. Not when the weather’s this cold, but when I have meetings down on Central Campus, I’ll walk and cut through the Arb to spend the time.

What inspires you?

I guess you just like to think that you’re making a difference in people’s lives.

What are you currently reading?

I usually only have time to read on those long airplane flights. Last summer I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” by Robert M. Pirsig, probably for the fifth time. 

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My adviser for my master’s degree at Washington State University. I would not be at U-M today if it wasn’t for getting my Ph.D. at Caltech … my master’s adviser pushed me in that direction. I’d like to think that I could have similar positive impacts for at least some of my students.