NPCA’s and PCI’s Foundations first jointly funded precast concrete-specific design studio successfully wraps up its first semester.
By Sara Geer
If a civil engineering student’s end goal is to shape, build, maintain and expand infrastructure, then receiving a well-rounded education is important. Class prerequisites rooted in mathematics and science will help sharpen design skills, yet a civil engineer must also be knowledgeable about the building materials that will be used to construct the structures.
According to Mustafa Mashal, Ph.D., P.E., Idaho State University’s assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, most civil engineering graduates know about concrete, but never get to learn enough about precast concrete. It is normally the last lecture in a reinforced concrete course. He plans to change that with ISU’s new precast-specific engineering studio.
“We would like to educate students so by the time they start their career and a project comes through, they’ll know if precast concrete could be a potential opportunity for that project,” Mashal said. “We don’t want students to be lost and dictated only by conventional ways of construction. We believe precast concrete has many advantages and think it could be the future of construction, especially when it comes to modular construction.”
From proposal to fruition
Mashal first learned about the design studio after attending a Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute faculty seminar in 2017. At the time, there were other studios around the country, but he observed none centered on teaching students about precast concrete in bridges. With help from John Dobbs, P.E., S.E., former PCI Mountain States executive director, he put together and presented a proposal to the PCI Foundation in Spring 2018 to build a precast engineering studio at ISU.
“I submitted a proposal for a design studio focused on precast bridges and at the time, the proposal only included the PCI Foundation,” Mashal said. “The board suggested I reach out to the NPCA Foundation as well since they wanted the studio to also cover precast culverts. From there, I was assigned a liaison to help talk to potential donors or funding companies and communicate the idea to the NPCA Foundation.”
The liaisons were Marianne Methven, director of sales and marketing at Hamilton Form Co., and Ray Clark, general manager at US Formliner, who were both active at the time in the NPCA and PCI Foundations. They presented the proposal to the NPCA Foundation and believed Mashal’s enthusiasm for teaching precast and the concept of the engineering studio fit well with the Foundation’s mission. After hearing about the concept, the NPCA Foundation Board of Directors agreed to partner with the PCI Foundation and fund half the studio for four years, making it the first jointly sponsored engineering studio focused on precast concrete transportation products such as bridges and culverts in the nation. The class will be offered once a year during the Fall semester.
“I applaud the NPCA Foundation for having the vision and the trust to fund this program,” Methven said. “My hope is that it serves as a model for similar programs at universities across the country.”
What truly makes ISU’s design studio unique and successful, Mashal explained, is the support it has received from PCI, NPCA, and the bridge industry. Support has come from as far as Washington, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New York, Georgia and Texas. For the first semester, 15 industry professionals, including the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) and Ray Clark, visited and shared with the class real-life projects, bringing with them new opportunities for students to consider. In addition, ISU students and faculty toured several precast yards.
“With this particular studio, I think it’s important that all precast members within a reasonable geographic distance, as well as associate members, support this to ensure students are getting out of the class what they want them to get out – which is the benefits offered by using and designing with precast concrete,” Clark said.
Students also learned about structural and hydraulic design considerations and construction, and participated in several planned lab activities where they created precast concrete specimens and tested them using the ISU’s testing facilities. They also became student members of PCI and NPCA. In addition, two student teams have signed up for the PCI Big Beam and NPCA Student Design Competitions.
Mashal also wants the precast studio to be used not just for teaching, but by students participating in research projects. He said currently several projects are in process with ITD, Idaho National Laboratory, and other potential ideas for the industry as they collaborate to push the use of precast concrete for civil and critical infrastructure. Along with educating current students, a shorter version of the studio will also be used to teach ITD District 5 engineers who are not familiar with precast concrete.
Bruce Savage, Ph.D., P.E., associate professor and chair of ISU’s civil and environmental engineering department, said the course is a refreshing addition to the civil engineering curriculum because it brings more hands-on instruction into the classroom and better prepares students as they graduate and help build the infrastructure in the next generation.
“The parts are coming together, but it’s all a learning process for us too,” Savage said. “We’re hoping the studio will continue to grow each year and that we’ll get better at finding new ways to keep the students excited about this opportunity.”
Kirby O’Malley, NPCA Foundation chairman, said he thanks the PCI Foundation for inviting the NPCA Foundation to partner with them to support the studio and for helping the board understand what it can do for the precast industry. He said one way ISU students will be directly involved with the NPCA Foundation is by competing against other schools in its annual student competition. The qualifying teams chosen by the board will be judged at The Precast Show 2020 in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Anytime precast is taught at a university or college, it enhances the awareness of precast,” O’Malley said. “The more we go to specifiers and students, the better they’ll understand the significance of using precast and how it helps a job and is a better product than cast-in-place. We’re excited they are finally starting to do that.”
Sara Geer is NPCA’s communication manager, and is managing editor of Precast Inc.