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Professional Practices Course Offers Real-World Opportunities in Engineering

Civil Engineering seniors at the Darby Borough Main Street crossing: Rob Asensio, Douglas Allen, Matt Greico and Joe Emory.
CEE Seniors: Rob Asensio, Douglas Allen, Matt Greico and Joe Emory.

Each year, Villanova University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering offers a Professional Practices in Engineering course open to seniors of any discipline in the College. Designed to help soon-to-be graduates transition from college to career, a significant part of the curriculum is dedicated to a conceptual engineering project that tests the students' problem-solving skills. For the fall 2013 semester, students are working with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) on a highway–railroad grade crossing study in Darby Borough, Delaware County, Pa.

Darby Borough's Main Street grade crossing project presents the DVRPC—and students in the Professional Practices course—with a highly unusual situation. Within the intersection of Main Street and Sixth Street, a single-track Class 1 CSX freight line bisects a double-track SEPTA trolley line. Vehicular traffic also operates at the grade crossing, and given the urban nature of the area and two elementary schools in the vicinity, there is substantial pedestrian traffic as well. "The Main Street highway–grade crossing is the only known grade crossing in the U.S. in which an active freight rail line crosses an active fixed-rail transit line where vehicular and pedestrian traffic are also present," notes Dr. Leslie Myers McCarthy, PE, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "In recent years, both reportable and non-reportable accidents have occurred at this location, including some fatalities," adds department colleague Frank Falcone, adjunct associate professor. Both Falcone and Dr. McCarthy are instructors in the course.

Civil Engineering seniors learn real life solutions to real life problems.
Civil Engineering seniors learn real life solutions to real life problems.

The broadly stated goal for the Professional Practices in Engineering semester project is to find and recommend to DVRPC, and other key stakeholders, short and long term improvements to the Main Street grade crossing such that vehicular, pedestrian, freight and transit traffic can flow efficiently and safely while minimizing impact to the local community.

To tackle this issue, the Professional Practices class has been divided into three broad teams, one to address short-term improvements, another to consider above grade options, and the third to evaluate below grade solutions. Within the teams, subgroups will focus on:

  • Application of the recommended improvement (who and what)
  • How the needs of the different stakeholders will be met in terms of performance and safety
  • What must be addressed, considered and overcome before this improvement can be advanced (funding and marketing/visibility issues). Will it be a single improvement or part of an overall railroad corridor program?                          

In addition to testing their problem-solving skills, this semester's project will also call on students to effectively communicate their recommendations to an audience of industry professionals, community officials and local residents. On December 10 at 7:00 p.m., representatives of the class' three teams will present their solutions to an audience at Darby Borough Community Center. With this project, Villanova Engineering students are benefitting from real-world experience that will set them apart when they enter the job market.