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Engineering Students Take to the Streets for Real-World Experience

Evan Campbell,  James Matzke and Robert Flynn use a retroreflectometer to measure sign retroreflectivity
E. Campbell, J.Matzke and R. Flynn

State and federal agencies are not immune to the economic challenges that have faced this country throughout the past five years. State transportation agencies, local municipalities and other public agencies find themselves with shrinking budgets and reduced staffing at a time when increasingly regulated programs require additional support. In this area of need, Villanova University’s College of Engineering professors Seri Park, PhD, PTP, and Leslie Myers McCarthy, PhD, PE, saw a tremendous opportunity for their students. They describe the resulting win-win scenario in “Innovative Partnerships Help Inventory Traffic Signs,” the cover story in the March-April 2013 issue of Public Roads magazine. Co-authored by Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) engineers John McFadden, PhD, PE, PTOE, ’91 ECE, ’94 MSCE and George Merritt, the seven-page article explores how Villanova civil engineering students gained real-world experience by working on transportation projects in conjunction with local public agencies and Professors Park and McCarthy.

Before she came to the College of Engineering, Dr. McCarthy worked as an engineering team leader at the FHWA in Florida. There, she saw firsthand the challenges that local municipalities face in developing and completing projects with too few financial and staffing resources. As an assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Villanova University, Dr. McCarthy recognized that local municipalities could provide applied learning opportunities for students. “Real-world engineering service projects were right outside our doorstep,” she says.

Dr. McCarthy first established these partnerships and began advising student participants in 2009. In 2011, department colleague Dr. Park, a Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor, joined her. In this program, students interested in transportation engineering conduct several projects, which culminate in a final report delivered to the local agencies and a poster presentation at Civil and Environmental Engineering Day on campus. Their work has included studies regarding traffic impacts, signal coordination, streetscape design, transportation policy and infrastructure asset management. One project in particular, the subject of the Public Roads article, focused on a methodology to develop traffic sign inventories that would be tailored for local agencies.

Experiential learning is one of the cornerstones of Villanova’s top-ranked engineering program. Beginning in their first year, students are required to participate in multidisciplinary, hands-on projects. As they progress through the program, undergraduates have the opportunity to work alongside faculty on cutting-edge research in their areas of expertise. Through the College’s Multidisciplinary Design Lab, industry, government and other organizations are invited to partner with students on real-world projects. Service work, like these transportation projects, also provides practical experience, along with an opportunity to give back to the community, one of the fundamentals of the University’s Catholic Augustinian tradition.

Rachel Antonio, James Matzke, Robert Flynn, Diana Chiavetta, Dylan White, and Evan Campbell conduct traffic counts at an intersection
R.Antonio, J.Matzke, R.Flynn, D.Chiavetta, D White, and E.Campbell

Dr. Park explains, “Students are interested in participating in real-world projects before joining the working world. These projects not only help them apply their academic knowledge, but also train them to think like professional engineers.” Dr. McCarthy adds, “It means something to the students that what they produce is tangible, impacts people and generates results that will stand the test of time. It brings out the best in them in a way that in-class learning alone cannot achieve.” Greg Schertz, FHWA retroreflectivity team leader, points out, “Exposing students to real-world transportation projects helps them accelerate through the learning curve they face after graduation and joining the workforce.”

Villanova students appreciate the value of these hands-on opportunities. “By experiencing the development of an engineering practice firsthand, I was able to see the effort, commitment and mindset of those who developed the things we learn in the classroom,” says Vanvi Trieu ’12 CE. Senior Diana Chiavetta notes, “My student research project and safety assessment report allowed me to achieve a further understanding of the transportation world through real-life data analysis.” Dylan White ’13 CE acknowledges that the work broadened his perspective. “I know I’m learning in a different way and at a different level.” Brian Zirkel ’12 CE highly recommends the experience to current students. “Participating in undergraduate research was one of the best decisions I made in my collegiate career. The ability to participate in research adds a real-life dimension to engineering outside of the textbook course work.”

The resoundingly positive response to the students’ work has provided Drs. Park and McCarthy with more requests for help than they can fill. “Last spring I spoke at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Municipal Managers Association, and the word spread like wildfire about our student service projects,” says Dr. McCarthy. Currently, she and her class participants are working with Upper Darby Township, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) and Amtrak. Projects for Dr. Park’s students include pedestrian safety for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and an active travel demand model for the DVRPC. As one of the faculty advisors for the Villanova student chapter of the Institute for Transportation Engineers, Dr. Park also integrates into the curriculum field trips to various public agencies to see firsthand the work that is being done. Most recently, student members visited the Transportation Management Center of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District 6 for a closer look at Intelligent Transportation Systems, an area of Dr. Park’s expertise.

You can download a copy of “Innovative Partnerships Help Inventory Traffic Signs” here. Public Roads is a quarterly Federal Highway Administration publication sent to approximately 2,000 transportation agencies and consultants throughout all 50 states.

Related article by Drs. Leslie Myers McCarthy and Seri Park: “Can They Read Your Signs? How to Develop a Streamlined Strategy for Meeting FHWA Traffic Sign Compliance Dates,” American Public Works Association Reporter, July 2012.