Construction site serves as “outdoor classroom” for UAH civil engineering majors

Arthur Spencer and students

Arthur Spencer, a principal engineer
at Johnson & Associates, leads students in Christine Robinson’s senior design capstone course on a tour of the I²C construction site.

Michael Mercier | UAH

To the casual observer, the construction site for the D.S. Davidson Invention to Innovation Center (I²C) is exactly what it appears to be – the future home of a regional initiative that will foster, promote, and accelerate the commercialization of technology-based ventures through incubation, co-working, mentorship, funding, and strategic support. But for the civil engineering majors in Christine Robinson’s class at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), it’s a hands-on learning environment that contextualizes the academic content of their senior design capstone course.

"Having this exposure to real-world projects during their time as undergraduates provides our students with a level of confidence in their ability to think critically and problem solve, which is an asset during those anxious early months at the start of their career," says Robinson, who in addition to being a faculty member of UAH’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is also an active registered Professional Engineer in both Alabama and Mississippi. "Former students have repeatedly told me of instances in which they’ve been assigned tasks very similar to portions of their senior design project in their first year of work, and they were excited that they knew exactly how to begin."

For a civil engineering student with minimal exposure to construction, it’s a whole new world.

Arthur Spencer
Johnson & Associates

The two-semester course tasks students with planning, analyzing, and designing a complete civil engineering design project – often based on an actual one from the surrounding community. During the fall, they complete the preliminary site layout with a cost estimate, an environmental site assessment, a traffic plan, a grading and drainage plan, any permitting needs, and a preliminary structural design of a feature on the project site; the spring, meanwhile, includes further development of the structural component, a LEED assessment, an erosion control plan, a utility plan, storm water detention designs, and a final cost estimate.

"They work through the project in assigned teams and must prepare a group presentation and final report each semester covering all aspects of their work," says Robinson. "By the end, they have a comprehensive understanding of all aspects involved in developing a site to meet a client’s needs from preliminary phase through the final design and the start of construction."

Throughout the process, the students receive guidance and expertise from a range of mentors and advisors, including near-peers, professors, and practicing professionals. "We have members of the North Alabama civil engineering community who have provided guest lectures over the years, including structural engineers John Powell, Greg Qualls, and Jim Pugh; and geotechnical engineers Keith Mandel, John Corbell, and Barbara Lehman; as well as CEE faculty and graduate assistants," she says. CEE alumni have also been known to review and provide constructive critiques of the students’ designs and to attend presentations of their work.

Arthur Spencer, a principal engineer
with local civil engineering firm Johnson & Associates, has been one of the class’ most enduring supporters. "He is a valuable partner who lends his time and expertise both in and out of the classroom to the students," says Robinson. Since 2009, he has led site visits to Country Inn Suites Hotel on Madison Boulevard, Grissom High School, Huntsville Aquatic Center, Little Caesars Pizza, and ATF Manufacturing, among others.

CEE outdoor classroom plans

Senior civil engineering majors are required to take the two-semester course, which tasks them with planning, analyzing, and designing a complete civil engineering design project.

Michael Mercier | UAH

"As senior design engineers, we sometimes see everyday project construction activities as routine," says Spencer. "But for a civil engineering student with minimal exposure to construction, it’s a whole new world. We sense the excitement during that first construction site visit, and we see their understanding of the senior design project expand as they witness progress at the construction site." Once the project is complete, Spencer also helps critique each team’s designs during their end-of-year presentations. "By that time, they exude confidence," he says. "And that is our goal, to prepare these new engineers to confidently take on real world design challenges."

Last year, Robinson’s students worked on the development of the main site area of Ditto Landing, with proposals that included new campground areas. This year, their focus was on the development of the former Madison County Boat Harbor, which is owned by Ditto Landing. "It was an exciting opportunity for our students to work with Ditto’s executive director – and UAH alumna – Brandi Quick and her Board of Directors to provide options that will meet their stated needs as well as hopefully provide them with some additional options for development in the future," says Robinson. "Students value the interaction with area practicing professionals and these site visits highly throughout their capstone design class time."

Since construction on the project won’t begin during this academic year, however, the I2C construction site is now filling in for the Boat Harbor and serving as the "outdoor classroom" for the students’ fall semester curriculum. It’s also preparing them for what to expect after graduation, when projects like these will be under their purview. "It is our goal to graduate civil engineers who understand not only the theory," says Robinson, "but also the applied-practice aspects of our profession, and who are ready to begin their career path toward professional licensure as active, involved members of the engineering community."


Christine Robinson