By Mason Nichols
Growing up in River Falls, Wis., as the daughter of a bridge contractor, Nicole Behnke quickly developed a strong connection to the construction and precast concrete industries. Thanks to her strong familial bonds and the scholarship funds provided by the NPCA Educational Foundation, she continues to pursue her career aspirations with fervor today.
Behnke cites her father as highly influential in generating her intrigue concerning all things infrastructure. When Behnke was a child, her father would consistently ask her who she believed built the various bridges dotting the landscape as the two drove around town. “Guess who built that bridge? Guess who built that bridge?”
But Behnke’s ties run even deeper. Joe Wieser, a pioneer in the precast concrete industry and the founder of Wieser Concrete Products Inc. in Maiden Rock, Wis., is Behnke’s grandfather.
Both of these connections – and many others – played an important role in spurring Behnke to major in civil engineering at Iowa State University with an emphasis in transportation.
Now in her senior year, Behnke has benefitted from several internship opportunities that have helped prepare her for life as an engineer. She notes, however, that the aid of the NPCA Educational Foundation has helped make it possible.
“Being an NPCAEF Scholarship recipient has allowed me to gain some really, really great internship experiences,” Behnke said. “The Foundation has been integral in making my continuing education possible.”
Behnke’s first internship was in Foley, Minn., where she worked as a field engineer. The project involved turning a two-lane highway into a four-lane divided highway. Because of her connections to the precast concrete industry, Behnke was able to easily identify the various precast components being used on the project, including a small bridge and box culverts. She was also quick to emphasize the advantages of specifying precast.
“Precast is less time-consuming, which is a big advantage for any project, because using it will decrease construction time,” Behnke said. “It also aids in minimizing disruption for the public.”
Another one of Behnke’s major internship opportunities allowed her to work as a transportation engineer for the St. Croix River Crossing Project in Minnesota. The $600 million endeavor, which aims to replace an outdated lift bridge with a new extradosed bridge connecting expressways on both sides of the St. Croix River, is expected to significantly mitigate traffic flow in the area.
Responsibilities for Behnke were design-related, including developing the curves, alignments, profiles and cross-sections of the roadway approaches. Much of her work was performed using high-end software programs.
Behnke was also involved in discussions between the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the local community pertaining to roadway design.
“We talked about roadway design, because it’s a really commercialized area,” Behnke said. “There were a lot of local businesses that were worried about keeping their access open throughout construction as well as ensuring that their driveways were going to be repaired afterward.”
Being given a crucial role in the project was of great importance to Behnke, who said she appreciated not being “just the intern.”
“It was really nice, because they treated me as a full-time employee. I walked in the first day and just jumped right into it. I was like, ‘Are you guys sure that you want me doing all this?’ But they had a lot of trust in me.”
As Behnke works toward earning her degree in the spring of 2014, she continues to recognize the importance of using precast concrete for a variety of transportation projects, likely because of her roots in the precast industry.
“Precast concrete is always in the back of my mind, so whenever I’m on a project, I keep my eyes open and see where it’s used and how it’s used effectively,” she said.
Beyond precast, Behnke’s passion for learning, coupled with the school funding provided by her NPCAEF Scholarship, will likely lead her to ask her father a very important question in the not too distant future: “Guess who built that bridge?”
Mason Nichols is NPCA’s communication coordinator.