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Preparing tomorrow's engineers for the real world

Sam Ali
Senior Project Manager
Psomas
Costa Mesa, California

How do you give young engineering students the hands-on experience and skills that will help them assimilate quickly and productively into the working world? How do you get them to look beyond the technical and economic aspects of engineering to make them broader thinkers—to focus on the social, environmental and even political considerations involved in today's projects?

A unique public/private partnership in Orange County, California is successfully answering these questions. The engineering community has partnered with University of California, Irvine to form the UCI Civil and Environmental Engineering Affiliates, an organization working to ensure that future engineers learn the real-world skills that the profession needs.

The CEE Affiliates works on a multi-pronged approach with UCI to better prepare the engineers of tomorrow. Program elements include a yearlong capstone senior design course, instructors culled from the private sector, input on curriculum, research and lab support, and field trips to local projects.

Terry Hartman, vice president of community development for The Irvine Company and former president of CEE Affiliates, says that the organization has pushed for a curriculum that teaches teamwork in problem solving and improving communication skills to better prepare engineering students for what employers expect from entry-level engineers.

Jan Scherfig, professor of engineering and deputy chair of the department, calls the yearlong Senior Design Practicum, with its direct involvement by CEE Affiliates consulting firms, developers and public agencies, a "key educational component of our engineering program."

The course takes students out of the classroom and into the field, giving them the chance to apply their technical studies to real problems. In essence, the students form a consulting firm to solve problems brought by the "client" as specified in the course outline. Last year's assignment was based on plans for The Irvine Company's master-planned village of Quail Hill, giving students the opportunity to learn firsthand about community development design problems. Working in teams of four to five students each, they developed designs for pedestrian bridges, came up with plans for roundabouts at street intersections, and engineered plans for dealing with a hypothetical groundwater spoiling acid spill. During the exercise, the seniors learn how to look at the full picture, for instance how a drainage plan impacts street design and visa versa.

Sam Ali, CEE Affiliates President, shows design drawing plans of the Palo Verde Student Housing Project at the University of California, Irvine to UCI students.

The course culminates with each team presenting their designs to the CEE Affiliates in a planning commission-like setting. This experience fosters better public speaking skills, the ability to make effective PowerPoint presentations, and greater confidence in interfacing with people in the industry—their future employers.

In addition to direct involvement in the senior design course, CEE Affiliates members serve as lecturers in other courses, tying the theoretical and real-world components together in topics ranging from grading, drainage, soils and foundation structures to traffic engineering, water systems, environmental and land development engineering.

CEE Affiliates also serves as an "advisory committee" for the engineering department in reviewing course offerings and content. Nick Ahrontes, manager of operations and management for the Orange County Sanitation District, looks at membership as an excellent opportunity to influence academia on the needs of public agencies and the knowledge, skills and abilities they are looking for in future engineers. Being in the business of asset management, Ahrontes points out that public agencies need well-rounded engineers with an understanding of cradle-to-grave asset management.

  Sam Ali discusses the tricks to balancing cut and fill on sloped terrain.

Affiliates-sponsored field trips to construction projects for these budding engineers run the gamut: Disney California Adventure, Caltrans bridge construction, and a Boeing manufacturing plant destined for redevelopment. Gifts to acquire and modernize equipment and laboratory facilities, equipment donations and in-kind support are all part of the Affiliates support package. Internships go to 60 percent of the students, and CEE Affiliates also offers engineering school scholarships.

Professor Scherfig points out that this public/private partnership is unique; there is no other program like it in the nation. The innovative program gets high praise during the UCI engineering school's annual accreditation certification.

This close affiliation with the school of engineering gives Affiliates members first crack at the best and brightest right out of college. At Psomas we typically hire one or two from the program each year. When UCI grad Regina Hu relocated to Southern California after graduate school, she immediately called her Affiliates contacts and landed a job with Psomas as a civil engineer designing roadway rehabilitation. The former campus ASCE president and Psomas intern notes that the connections made through the Affiliates were a big advantage for seniors seeking jobs after graduation. She recalls that there were "lots of networking opportunities for the students to get to know people in the industry...and they remember you even a couple of years later!"

In addition to fueling a pipeline of better-prepared engineers and first shot at hiring the best and the brightest right after graduation, Affiliates members see other benefits from this unique partnership with academia. Ahrontes points out that Affiliates members have an excellent resource for research. Currently, for example, masters candidates, under the supervision of their professors, are doing fieldwork and lab work to develop a methodology for quantifying subsurface sewer leakage for the sanitation district.

Quarterly breakfast meetings provide members the opportunity for heavy-duty networking with their peers from the engineering and development community while learning about key topics like rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure. At the same time, Hu says these breakfast sessions give the students yet another window into what the industry is all about.

The entire community is benefiting from this alliance as well. Infrastructure is a key component of cities, but often overlooked, especially in these hard economic times for public agencies. The Affiliates partnered with the university and ASCE to produce the 2002 Orange County Report Card, which grades county infrastructure elements like schools, storm drains, airports, and transportation. UCI serves as an independent clearinghouse, adding third-party credibility to the information in the Report Card, which will be issued again in 2005.

A win-win situation for the engineering community, the university and its engineering students, the CEE Affiliates is a program that bears replicating throughout the country.

Sam Ali is president of the University of California, Irvine Civil and Environmental Engineering Affiliates. He is a civil engineer and water resources expert in the Costa Mesa, California office of Psomas, which specializes in the land development, water resources and transportation markets. He can be reached at (714) 954-3700 or at sali@psomas.com.