Keith Robinson inspires new paths for geotechnical engineering students

With the formation of two new undergraduate prizes, a graduate award and funding for annual field trips and special events, this UBC alum has found an impactful way to give back

Keith Robinson headshot
UBC alum Keith Robinson is donating $50,000 per year for the next 10 years to support geotechnical engineering students

Keith Robinson is a geotechnical engineer from Vancouver who graduated from UBC in 1962, and obtained a Master of Engineering from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Inspired by his own successful career and educational path, he’s now giving back and helping students discover the science and art of geotechnical engineering. 

Keith is supporting students with financial aid through the founding of two new undergraduate prizes and one graduate award, as well as funding an annual field trip and an annual geotechnical engineering event—a contribution totalling $50,000 per year for the next 10 years. 

In this Q and A, Keith tells us about his education path and how he hopes his generous gift will work to inspire future students.


Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

In high school I was more interested in sports than academics. I’d been advised by a counsellor that I should be an engineer because I was good at science and math. I thought I’d better go to UBC, and took some exams but it didn’t work out all that well. Luckily, the school board decided to have a Grade 13 at North Van High the next year, which I attended and so had another year to mature before hitting UBC. 

I went right into general engineering in 1958 and graduated in 1962. I started with a 66 per cent average my first year, but by my fourth year I was 86 per cent—top of the class for civil engineering. That’s part of the reason why I want to focus on kids who struggle a bit initially but have the talent.

I was lucky that between third and fourth year I worked for a soil engineer, Bob Spence. He became my mentor and told me that if I wanted to go into soil engineering (now geotechnical engineering) I really had to get a master’s degree. I applied to the best five universities in the US that offered this at the time, but unfortunately that relied on your third-year courses and I had a 78 per cent average at that time. 

Time went by and I didn’t hear from them. Then out of the blue I got a letter from Illinois saying that they had set up a new research assistantship called the Terzaghi Assistantship. Terzaghi is considered the founder of soil mechanics. He was in retirement but a guest lecturer at Illinois. Dr. Ralph Peck was the main professor in Illinois. 

I received the assistantship and worked under Dr. Peck while getting my master’s. He was an excellent professor who concentrated on case histories that demonstrated the need to think outside the box. I was getting paid to do research on piles and get my master’s degree over 16 months, from September of 1962 to January of 1964.

I got my master’s degree, bought a brand-new car, and had no debts. You can’t do that now. Part of the reason why I’m doing this is to give back to the profession and help students get a practical boost to their careers. Soil engineering really did it for me. It gave me such a good and practical start to my career. From Illinois I got some really good job offers. 

And I like my profession so much that I still work a bit and try to add value to, and mentor, younger engineers. It now is almost a hobby to me in my retirement years.

I want to encourage people to go into geotechnical engineering; to me it’s more exciting because the conditions are so variable. It’s not as structured in terms of the materials you are dealing with. 

What advice would you give to new students in engineering? 

Try and think about what could go wrong with whatever you are designing or doing. Look at what could be the worst situation if you did design it or do a project in a certain way. What could go wrong? Think laterally, think outside the box. Don’t just follow what somebody says, or follow what a report says. 

As a student, you need to pick a career path that suits what you like. If you want to follow the path that I did, which is in geotechnical engineering, it’s part art, part science, because soil and rock conditions are quite variable so that experience and judgement count and involve empirical relationships as well as scientifically defined ones. Each project you work on has slight differences; it’s not like a manufactured product. 

In structural engineering you’re dealing with concrete and steel; in electrical engineering you’re dealing with electricity and wires; and with mechanical you’re dealing with man-made things. But the things geotechs deal with aren’t man-made, they’re nature made. Because of that, with the more experience you have and the more projects you look at, you develop an experience quotient that is very important. 

What I find with younger engineers starting their careers is they tend to look at a previous report and then duplicate it, rather than thinking, “what does the project need or what does the client need.” 

I want to encourage people to go into geotechnical engineering; to me it’s more exciting because the conditions are so variable. It’s not as structured in terms of the materials you are dealing with. 


Do you have a favourite memory from your time as a UBC student that you’d like to share?

So many of them. I was a bit of a sports guy and in the engineering fraternity we had a lot of sports activities like touch football. We used to have an annual football game against the agricultural students and we’d have a chariot race during the woman’s football game. And we’d be throwing things at each other, it was terrible. In my last year we won the touch football game, so that was fun.

In the academic area, in my final year we had a new professor in soil mechanics, Professor Finn who, I’m sure, is still an adjunct professor. He taught advanced soil mechanics and was such a character. He was a great professor and gave us lots of good insights into soil engineering. At the year end, as there were only about 10 of us in his class, he interviewed each of us for about half an hour and that was his exam. Then he did the same thing for the final exam. 

We had an enjoyable time at UBC Engineering, we played, we worked hard. We had 36 hours of course time. But we learned how to get the most out of our time.


Can you tell us about your recent donation and what motivated you to give?

I feel that I’ve done very well in my career and I’ve been very lucky. One of the professors in third year recommended me to Bob Spence to work for him that summer—so that’s how I got my start. I never really had to make a big decision.

So I wanted to give back. I have enough assets that I can afford to give back to UBC, so I thought—what do I want to do? First, I was going to put it into a lump sum for when I pass away, but it felt silly not to participate in the gift I give, so I decided to do it soon rather than later. And that’s where we got to where we are—a 10-year guarantee of $50,000 a year. It will be in my will one way or another, to carry on. 

It will be a legacy of my career. I wanted to help students follow my path, to think outside the box and get more practical experience.


What are you hoping to see as a result of this gift? What change will it create?

There’s a couple of aspects of the gift that are related to the whole class and hopefully it will encourage more students to go into a geotechnical career, from civil engineering in particular, but also geological engineering. 

What’s happened in the recent decades is that students in the geological engineering program have fed more into the geotechnical engineering profession, with less students coming from civil engineering. And what I find is that geological students tend to not have a strong background in structural and other civil engineering areas. We interact a lot with structural engineers, and if you’ve gone through civil engineering you’ve got a structural engineering background as well as geotechnical. So it’s trying to get more civil engineers into geotechnical.

That’s part of it, and then also encouraging all students to be more practically oriented, not so much theoretically. You can always find engineers to go through the computer programs and do the detailed analysis. The students that come through UBC have to do that anyway. I want people to get out in the field and see what soil looks like, what the conditions look like, and to start thinking as laterally as they can. I think the programs that will be set up as a result of this gift are focused on that.

I really look forward to seeing what’s going to happen with this. The benefits that accrue from this donation. I’m looking forward to the future.



The Keith Robinson Prize in Geotechnical Engineering 

Prizes totalling $10,000 annually for Bachelor of Applied Science students in Civil Engineering who demonstrate outstanding academic achievement in their fourth-year Civil Engineering elective courses focused on Geotechnical Engineering.


The Keith Robinson Prize in Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering

Prizes totalling $10,000 annually for Bachelor of Applied Science students in Civil Engineering who demonstrate outstanding academic achievement in second, third- and fourth-year Civil Engineering courses focused on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering.


The Keith Robinson Graduate Award in Geotechnical Engineering 

Awards totalling $10,000 annually for outstanding Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) students in Civil Engineering specializing in the area of Geotechnical Engineering. Preference for students who have completed their undergraduate degree at UBC. Financial need may be taken into consideration. 


Keith Robinson Geotechnical Engineering Field Trip

$10,000 per year towards a Geotechnical Engineering field trip for undergraduate/graduate students that would serve to educate and inspire all Geotechnical Engineering students.


Keith Robinson Geotechnical Engineering Event

$10,000 per years towards an annual or bi-annual undergraduate/graduate student-organized Geotechnical event that will allow UBC to contribute to the larger Geotechnical Engineering community.

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