In the case of Hill’s team, that was the Minnesota Department of Transportation — bridge engineer Andrew Lawver in particular. Lawver was impressively responsive, answering emailed questions the same day, inviting students to the MnDOT headquarters for assistance when they were struggling with a design and praising their final product.
“Working with MnDOT is great,” Hill said.
MSU’s approach is drawing more and more students to the program. This year’s graduating class, which will be either the second or third largest in the program’s history, was big enough that there were actually three capstone teams.
Hill’s worked with MnDOT on the Highway 14 bridge, which is scheduled for as much as $100 million in renovation and expansion in a decade or so. Another team, led by project manager Nolan Mattison, presented a somewhat more fanciful project Tuesday night — a passenger rail line from Mankato to Rochester to Winona. And on Wednesday night, a third team dubbing itself “Dynamic Engineering Consultants” showed their designs for a 7.4-mile multi-use trail between Mankato and St. Peter, something the Department of Natural Resources is hoping to build in coming years.
Each project demonstrated the full range of work required of civil engineers. The trail group, for instance, examined the feasibility of the trail and laid out justifications for constructing it, including survey results showing the popularity of bike trails, the documented increase in home values for houses near trails, and the mental and physical health benefits of outdoor recreation.
And they did the more expected engineering work. They designed the trail down to its foundation, a 416-foot bridge to carry the trail over a railroad corridor north of Mankato, and a tunnel to carry bikers and hikers beneath Highway 22 between Kasota and the Chankaska Creek Winery. They completed a construction schedule and a cost analysis ($5,736,298). Even educational message boards along the trail and seed mixes for native plants and wildflowers on trail slopes were included.
The dozen students worked with everyone from MnDOT and DNR officials to private engineering firms to Wells [a prefabrication manufacturer].
The technical proficiency, the collaboration and teamwork, and the communication skills demonstrated in the public presentation are all part of an engineering education.
“This actually hits all of the outcomes that we’re required to have for accreditation,” Reza said.
The passenger rail project might have been the most expansive of the three.
Nolan Mattison, the project manager, made the pitch for the value of rail service connecting Mankato and Rochester to the existing Amtrak service in Winona. He laid out the survey conducted by the group, their projections for ridership and the type of service envisioned.
Then the rest of the team explained their piece of the design. Henry Pagel and Mustafa Hussein laid out the plans for the train stations in Mankato, Rochester and Winona; Hagilan Mohan explained the soil conditions at the various sites; Josh James covered the stormwater management; Elissa Cook presented the environmental issues ranging from endangered and threatened species to stormwater pollution prevention. It went on and on.
The Highway 14 bridge group focused initially on the reasoning behind their conclusion that the best way to address the deteriorating bridge deck on the existing bridge is to build a second span just to the north. Once that span was constructed, highway traffic could be shifted to the new bridge while the old bridge is refurbished. And when both are completed, the highway would have additional lanes to handle future traffic growth even while providing a bike crossing connecting existing trails on both sides of the river.
After detailing their designs for bridge components, aesthetic additions to honor the area’s Dakota heritage and a budget projection of $75.6 million, Hill said the team was ready for questions.
As always, there were plenty. It’s something of a tradition for area engineers to show up for the presentations and pepper the students with detailed queries and challenges to their assumptions. Reza said many of the attendees are MSU engineering grads looking to give back a little of what they got when they were at the front of the lecture hall.
“Yeah, they do actually,” he said, laughing. “A lot of them went through it — they’re alumni. So they know we want them to get those tough questions. We don’t want it to be easy. So that will put them on their toes.”
While the students might have to make some pre-graduation adjustments to their projects based on audience feedback, the presentations are essentially the finish line of a four-year race.
As 8 p.m. approached, there was a pause in the hands being raised in the auditorium.
“OK, no more questions?” Hill said, a hopeful smile on her face that the final horn was about to sound.
“One more ...” a man said, raising his hand as the audience laughed at the change in the expression on Hill’s face.
The question had to do with alternative bidding processes, and Hill turned to her teammates. One quickly stepped up, suggesting that a design-build process could be advantageous considering the complexities of the project.
It was a rock-solid finale for the bridge team, which traded fist bumps as the audience completed evaluation forms.
Not everybody in the audience was an engineer. Brian and Amber Hill, of Chisago City, who once watched their daughter play hockey, were on hand to see her skate through an hourlong engineering presentation.
“I think it’s great,” Brian Hill said. “To be honest, I wish they had more of this when I was graduating. I think it will prepare them well for the real deal.”
Asked if the presentation was, for parents of an engineering student, the equivalent of attending a kid’s hockey game, Amber Hill laughed.
“Not exactly,” she said. “But still super interesting.”