“The whole site is just the most fantastic construction lab we could ever get!” exclaimed Dr. Deb Besser, chair of civil engineering and director of the Center for Engineering Education.

Civil engineering students from St. Thomas visit sites of projects as part of their curriculum; this time the action was happening on campus. Students had the exciting opportunity this fall to put on their hard hats and get a closer look at the design and technology involved in the upper quad construction projects.

People walking outside the fences on the upper quad might be surprised to learn that it is not one big project but instead three separate projects: the chapel renovation and Iversen Center for Faith construction; a residence hall being built by The Opus Group; and a second residence hall being built by Ryan Companies.

“Opus has been very generous, and so has Ryan Companies, in letting us see commercial projects,” Besser said. “We’ve worked with Opus, SRF Consulting and a couple of other companies to have site visits every semester. They’re incredibly generous, and I always say it’s like the icing on the cake when you get to see a construction project.”

Mixing it up

Off-site projects that civil engineering majors have been able to visit include an SRF Consulting railroad project in Anoka County, Allianz Field in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, and an upcoming visit to the Green Line Extension that will reach the western suburbs of Minneapolis.

When planning site visits with companies, Besser tries to cover different sectors of civil engineering. “Of course we always look for one that is civil, what we also call heavy highway … one that’s more industrial, and a commercial project. Then, every once in a while, we get a complex residential project.”

Students value this intentional exposure to a diversity of projects, which helps them to get a better feel for what sector, or even which companies, they might pursue after graduation.

“The site visits really help me put the concepts that we learn in class into a real-life context,” said Hannah Dasyam ’21. “It’s one thing to know about the technical aspects of construction management but seeing it in action gives you an idea of all of the planning, coordinating and organization that goes behind it. As a civil engineer, I think it’s important to understand how your designs impact the workers who will be building them, and the site visits have shown me what that looks like.”

“We want our students to have the ability, because civil engineering is so broad, to be able to experience a couple of the different sectors,” Besser added.

This interest can go both ways too. “All of these companies are also interested in our graduates; our graduates have a bit of a different flavor than some of the other organizations or universities around here,” Besser said.

Intentional inclusion

Part of this mutual interest comes from the way St. Thomas informs its curriculum for its engineering majors. The Civil Engineering Working Group; the program’s External Advisory Board; individuals from professional societies; the American Society of Civil Engineers; and the American Public Works Association all have some kind of connection to the civil engineering program on campus; they answer when faculty ask what students should know or what would make someone with an engineering degree more appealing when they apply for a job. The thoughtful curriculum and inclusion of site visits is a boon to the civil engineering program, which currently has 57 students and last spring graduated its first class of engineers.

Seeing a project in action far surpasses the blueprint: Students witness a tangible example of how to design and build things well, from the schedule to the budget, through all the engineering challenges in between, and it encourages students to see the many facets involved in a project.

“They’re looking at not only what is the economic impact, but what is the impact to people, and what is the impact to the planet, the sustainability components?” Besser said.

The importance of site visits and other real-world opportunities for engineering students adds new dimensions that come from seeing classroom concepts practiced firsthand. St. Thomas pushes students to explore this new depth, and so its first-year engineering students take a surveying class to immediately begin opening doors to internships. Besser pointed out, “Your ability then to design it or understand it, your analysis of it is much richer if you have that opportunity to see the parts going together.”

These site visits are much more than just a field trip; the classes require students to analyze how the content in the classroom applies to what they saw on site. The fruit of excitement and “aha” moments plucked from the site visits often shows up in students’ response assignments.

“I love taking site visits for our class because it takes us (the students) into our possible future by seeing and experiencing projects that we could be working on after we graduate,” said Connor Kratzke ’21. “We have been able to experience what it is like to be a leader on a project by walking in the shoes of experienced professionals during our class.”

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