Would you let students design your bridge? We did!

Thomas Kimes, P.E., Project Manager, Kaw Valley Engineering, Kansas City, Missouri; Deborah O'Bannon, Ph.D., P.E., Associate Professor of School of Computing and Engineering, University of Missouri-Kansas City; Presenters, 2006 APWA Congress

Some of the most common challenges facing public works departments today include hiring staff with an interest in public service, selecting consultants with an understanding of public projects, and addressing a backlog of projects with limited resources. Now, a unique partnership between the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC) and the Public Works Department of Kansas City, Missouri addresses each of those issues simultaneously.

In 2002, Dr. Deborah O'Bannon, a civil engineering professor at the university, began preparing for the upcoming Senior Civil Engineering Design course—the capstone course in the undergraduate civil engineering program at the university. While developing the curriculum, O'Bannon reviewed design projects that senior students had previously attempted. She quickly came to the conclusion that these projects were often structured as expanded homework—thought exercises that may have limited relevance to the actual work that the students would soon be expected to complete as young professionals. Seeking to ground the course in a real-world experience, O'Bannon sought a partner that could bring a real-world project into the classroom. Through contacts with the Public Works Department in Kansas City, Missouri, she found an advocate in then-Deputy Director of Public Works, Larry Frevert (Frevert is a member of the APWA Board of Directors - Ed.). Frevert immediately understood the possibilities afforded by this partnership and provided O'Bannon with the critical elements that would make the proposed course work—the support of Public Works staff.

Finding the right-sized project that students could reasonably tackle provided the first hurdle. The City had a solution. After well over a decade of under-funded programs, the City was faced with a backlog of deferred-maintenance projects. With tremendous popular support, the citizens had adopted a sales tax to support the repair and replacement of the City's deteriorating infrastructure. With the financial support in place, the City was able to develop a robust bridge replacement program. And with well over 400 bridges in its inventory, the City had a wide variety of potential projects.

Senior engineering student Carla Horn presents her hydrologic analysis to senior Public Works staff.

With an expected enrollment of ten students, O'Bannon needed to be certain that the project was the right size. Too large of a project and the students would be overwhelmed. Too small, and the coursework would become trivial. Another issue had to be addressed early in the planning stage—who would construct the project? The answer quickly presented itself. Sending the project out for bid would provide too many complications for the students as well as the City. Contacting Public Works' bridge maintenance group quickly offered a solution. The manager for the bridge maintenance group wanted to provide her staff with an opportunity to complete a culvert replacement project. It was a natural fit—the City's staff had the capability to install a precast culvert structure, and the design complexity was within the ability of the students to specify.

If the City were to take the bold step of allowing students to provide recommendations and design documents for a bridge replacement project, as any consultant, the City needed to identify how it could maintain quality control. The solution was a simple one—the City would provide a project manager, Tom Kimes, who, as part of his normal work duties, would oversee the design of the culvert replacement. He would attend class weekly, receive updates on project issues, and assist the professor in keeping the project on track. The project manager and professor would essentially become co-instructors, with the project manager ensuring that the final product would be useable by the City, while the professor would ensure that the student's responsibilities would meet the course's academic goals.

With all the basic elements in place, the senior design class began its first project in the winter semester of 2003. Because the civil engineering program at UMKC enjoys a non-traditional student body, the first senior design class had what would be an unusual composition for most universities. With an average student age of about 33, the students included individuals who had worked in the design or construction field for several years. The students included a mechanical engineer seeking a career change, an experienced survey crew chief, and several CAD operators and designers. Even with a high level of student sophistication, the project provided a challenge, both for the students and the instructors.

Senior design student Michelle Theilen and adjunct professor Tom Kimes review student designs.

Since the beginning of the partnership, the City has provided three small bridge projects to the class. Each year the instructors review the course structure and the student composition and seek to broaden the students' experience while providing a useful product to the City. Immediately after the first course, O'Bannon identified that the project was too ambitious to complete in a single semester and the course was expanded to two semesters. Although the technical aspects of the design are within most senior engineering students' capabilities, the course requires that the students complete the numerous "soft" tasks that are required, but rarely taught in the university setting.

The course has continued long enough to begin to be an institutionalized part of the civil engineering learning experience at UMKC. But the course never becomes a static curriculum. The unique talents, and limits, of each group of students must be identified and managed by the instructors as early in the first semester as possible. And the instructors must resist the urge to teach the students.

The course operates as a design studio. The primary goal for the course is to create a design team atmosphere, with the students having the latitude to make independent decisions. Sometimes those decisions are poor ones, but each poor decision is an opportunity for reflection and improvement.

The students must coordinate with local utility companies to identify underground and overhead lines. In one project, the students had to coordinate their project with the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department. The students must prepare alternative solutions to each design, and adequately investigate each alternative. The students' responsibilities are not limited to engineering issues. The students must consider the cost of their design, the construction sequencing, detour routing and long-term maintenance capabilities of the City. They must also consider right-of-way impacts and community impacts. As part of the course work, each student is required to attend a public meeting in which an engineer must explain a project to a community stakeholder group or the general public.

At the culmination of the students' first semester, they must deliver a project report that identifies the critical issues for each project, provides alternate solutions, discusses the advantages and disadvantages of each solution, and makes a recommendation to the City for the optimum solution. They prepare and present their report to staff from the Public Works Department at City Hall and respond to questions. During the semester break, City staff review the report and provide comments for the students to address at the beginning of the second semester. During the second semester, the students prepare construction documents, and permit and easement applications for the preferred alternative.

Over the three years of the program, both UMKC staff and City staff have learned important elements for a successful partnership:

  • In order for the project to be a productive learning experience, it should meet learning goals for the university. The project must be a legitimate project, meaning that the students must face real consequences of their actions and decision-making. The students are building their professional reputations in this class by the public nature of their project and client. Rather than facing the possibility of a poor grade, the students face the possibility that they won't succeed in preparing project documents that will meet the needs of the client.

  • The partners must have clear expectations for the project deliverables. Partners must be prepared for the entire design and construction cycle.

  • One of the important elements that must be included in the project partnership is the participation of both organizations at the highest levels.

This partnership aids students in the transition from being students to becoming independent engineers. The project exposes students to the project development cycle; it encourages teamwork; it allows students to experience failure in a relatively safe environment. Most importantly, it provides a positive benefit to the project partner, and exposes students to the importance of municipal work early in their careers.

The authors will give a presentation on this topic at the 2006 APWA Congress, accompanied by Masood Alemifar, Planning Engineer, City of Kansas City, Missouri, and Erich Schmitz, Hydraulic Engineer, TranSystems, Kansas City, Missouri. Their session is entitled "Would You Let Students Design Your Bridge? We Did!" and takes place Sunday, September 10, at 3:00 p.m. Thomas Kimes can be reached at (816) 468-5858 or Kimes@kveng.com; Dr. Deborah O'Bannon can be reached at (816) 235-1287 or obannond@umkc.edu.