Civil and environmental engineering — as a profession — is becoming increasingly computer based. A drainage engineer cannot easily conjure a physical model of a 100-year storm, even in the best equipped laboratory. Also, use of this “physical model” for evaluating a suite of project alternatives to inform final design would be next to impossible under time and budget constraints.
For these reasons, computer modeling is at the core of success for modern day civil engineering. Modeling allows engineers to gather firm insights on real-world dynamics. Modeling allows engineers to simulate “what-if” scenarios that — in the real world — would prove impractical to test. Modeling allows engineers to predict the performance of complex infrastructure systems, facilitate long-term project planning, and assist clients with decision making.
Yet with all the emphasis on modeling, this critical skillset is not taught in many civil and environmental engineering curriculums. What is conspicuously lacking for many civil engineering students is a healthy integration of classroom theory with project-oriented model training. Data collection (what to look for and where to find it), model development, calibration, validation, debugging, model inference, along with general best modeling practices are just a few skillsets students need to learn. Such skillsets are critical for many civil engineering students prior to job placement.
Recognizing the growing disparity in computer modeling preparation among college graduates, I sought ways to bridge the knowledge gap using my experience in urban stormwater management, surface water hydrology, riverine hydraulics, and water distribution system modeling. However, I needed a platform with a student audience to build a set of project-based modeling workshops.
Luckily, I made contact with Avery Flessner, a junior civil engineering student at Texas A&M University (TAMU) and presiding vice president of projects for the Engineers without Borders (EWB) -TAMU Student Chapter. EWB is a professional organization with student chapters across the United States. EWB’s unified mission is to empower communities to help meet their basic human needs, usually in the form of well-coordinated engineering projects with local leaders.
Ultimately, what Flessner needed was an experienced professional engineer who could serve as a mentor to train the student chapter on modeling principles to facilitate project planning. From this, TAMU-EWB and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc. (LAN), a planning, engineering, and program management firm, forged a sustainable partnership built on knowledge exchange and mutual collaboration.
To kick-start this partnership — and to meet the students’ immediate needs — we organized a series of modeling workshops in spring 2017 that were provided free to students. Attendance was not only open to members of TAMU-EWB but all students wanting to learn more about water resources engineering and computer modeling.
Workshop topics included surface water hydrologic modeling using HEC-HMS, open-channel hydraulic modeling using HEC-RAS, and pressure conduit modeling using EPANET. The workshop format included 30 minutes of introductory lectures on software features and how it related to classroom theory. This was followed by 1.5 hours of hands-on tutorial training using project examples, then culminated with a 20-minute closing discussion on emerging modeling technologies in the fields of hydrology and hydraulics.
We provided these model training sessions in the context of a broader TAMU-EWB workflow (see Figure 1).
Phase 1 is meant to facilitate TAMU-EWB’s project planning processes by enabling students with introductory skillsets necessary for building functional models (see Figure 2). This phase entails integrating classroom theory and modeling to produce a finished representation of a natural (e.g., watershed) or engineered system (e.g., water pipe networks).
Phases 2 and 3 encompass steps toward project completion. Phase 2 includes TAMU-EWB site assessments for evaluating existing conditions, assessing infrastructure needs, and coordinating with local partners (see Figure 3).
Phase 3 entails project planning, design, and implementation (see Figure 4). EWB students typically carry out planning under the close supervision of the chapters’ advisor and professional mentors. Final project designs must pass the guidelines and regulations set forth by the EWB national chapter prior to project approval.
TAMU-EWB project timelines typically span multiple years. This is due to a strategic and methodical planning process, followed by a multi-step design process, and coordination with local stakeholders at the project site. Because of this, we anticipate several interim opportunities to customize future training workshops toward specific EWB projects.
The spring 2017 workshops were a great success. Each workshop averaged about 18 engineering students, which is quite impressive considering students gave up their Saturday mornings to voluntarily participate in the middle of mid-term exam season. This shows the level of student interest and dedication.
However, the need to balance the “supply and demand” model training equation goes beyond TAMU-EWB projects. TAMU’s College of Engineering is poised to increase total enrollment by more than 27 percent by 2025. The civil engineering department is expected to see commensurate growth, and from this comes the greater demand for supplementary course instruction for project-oriented model training.
Yet, the end goal is expected to remain the same — to educate, enable, and empower civil engineering students prior to graduation with sound modeling fundamentals that integrate classroom theory with real-world projects. This is the first of many.
Jacob Torres, Ph.D, P.E., CFM, a senior project engineer with Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc. (www.lan-inc.com), developed and served as the modeling workshop instructor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Avery Flessner is currently a junior (Class of 2019) in the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. He is obtaining a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering and is focused on a career in water resources engineering. He can be reached at email@example.com.