By Mason Nichols and Sue McCraven
Ask any civil engineering student how he or she is feeling and you’ll likely hear “tired” or “worn out.” Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering is a difficult task, and every student must put in a massive amount of work to be successful.
For students at Purdue University’s Lyles School of Civil Engineering in West Lafayette, Ind., the situation is no different. Over the course of four years, students take classes covering topics such as transportation, structures and everything in between to prepare them for the complexities of being a modern civil engineer. All of these experiences ultimately lead to the capstone design course, CE498, which requires students to put their accrued abilities to the test in a real-world application. In many cases – including the one outlined below – precast concrete is an important part of the equation.
Although several instructors at Purdue teach CE498, Robert B. Jacko, Ph.D., P.E. and professor of civil engineering, has been a mainstay since the 1970s. Initially, he taught the course only when called upon to do so. However, since 2000, he has taught CE498 every semester.
According to Jacko, one of the most important benefits of CE498 is the experience students receive working with engineering firms. “I usually pick a project that is allied with a large consulting firm like HNTB or CH2M HILL,” he said. “I’m very proud of the fact that we partner with firms that have real projects.”
Over the years, students have worked on many different projects, including a windmill farm, a soccer field and a college basketball arena, among others. No matter the project, student input is vital, and municipalities often choose plans designed in the course for real-world implementation.
To simulate the experiences students will face in the workforce, Jacko places them into teams. Each team appoints a project manager and assistant project manager who meet with Jacko throughout the course of the semester. During meetings, the parties discuss human resources, technical problems and anything else that may arise. The goal is to place students in situations they will face when working on team-based projects within engineering firms or government agencies.
For many students, including Ryan Martin, a recent Purdue graduate and current civil engineer with The Burke Group in Chicago, CE498 is a difficult – but extremely rewarding – course.
“Engineering students spend most of their time in a lecture or lab; we write a report or take a test and then the course is over,” he said. “With the senior design course, students are forced to come up with their own solutions. There’s no right answer.”
Despite the challenges, Martin said CE498 helped sharpen many of his skills, including public speaking, group work and time management.
A precast solution in Indiana
For the fall 2014 semester, Jacko collaborated with the Indiana Department of Transportation to secure work on the rehabilitation of a 21-mile section of roadway stretching from Martinsville to Bloomington, Ind. The project will upgrade parts of State Road 37 in Indiana to highway standards, extending Interstate 69.
Setting up CE498 for the project worked extremely well thanks to INDOT’s classification of six subsections along the roadway. Jacko divided the class into groups of six or seven and assigned each team to a subsection. Students were required to design an intersection containing an overpass, paying specific attention to issues such as drainage, pavement design, lighting, pedestrians and more.
“It’s quite comprehensive when you do an interstate like this,” Jacko said. “It gets extremely real-life for the students. Those are just some of the beauties of the course.”
The groups selected precast concrete box culverts as the material of choice for their underpass designs. According to Jacko, this was the best decision.
“The labor costs to form up culverts on site would be silly,” he said. “With the kind of culverts they’re using, why wouldn’t you? The pieces can be brought to the site in an efficient manner and can be installed fairly quickly in an effective fashion.”
Jacko added that although students generally specify precast concrete for roadway work in CE498, he sees great potential for additional uses in other upcoming projects.
Ready for anything
More than anything else, students taking CE498 at Purdue benefit from the invaluable experience that comes with working on real, tangible projects. Armed with sharply refined skills and knowledge of the advantages of precast concrete products, students can enter the workforce confident in their ability to engineer solutions to any project, no matter what the challenges may be.
Mason Nichols is the managing editor of Precast Solutions magazine and is NPCA’s external communication and marketing manager.
Sue McCraven is a civil and environmental engineer.