Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017

Senior Design, Fall 2018
January 11, 2018

At the end of each year, it is appropriate that we pause and reflect upon "the big picture" – the state of our nation and the world. Lots of things currently, especially the schism between the extremes in our society, encourage a pessimistic view of our future. Fortunately, however, my continued contact with the young people in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Pittsburgh provides me with a lot of reasons to resist that temptation.

In the last semester before they graduate our students participate in our Senior Design Projects program, a program that I am privileged to coordinate. In this program they implement "near-real-world" civil engineering projects in a cooperative team environment. This semester we had forty-two students representing six different specializations organized into six teams.

The culmination of the semester's work is a formal presentation to an audience made up of fellow students, faculty, family, friends, and representatives of local engineering firms. It was made in the ballroom of the O'Hara Student Center in an environment that replicated a major "real-world" public meeting. Each team was "on stage" for about forty–five minutes, followed by a ten-minute comment and question period involving the audience. The poise and obvious competence of all of the students was particularly impressive.

The first project focused on sustainability. Civil Engineers traditionally have been concerned with infrastructure design that is consistent with the long-term health of our environment, with special emphasis on energy and water. In recent years this concern has been formalized and is a fundamental part of our curriculum. This team set out to demonstrate quantitatively the application of these principles to a practical project.

Their goal was to design a facility to demonstrate sustainability, somewhat similar to the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory. Their site was a 40-acre agricultural property in Butler County. They designed a "Net-Zero" facility which would generate electricity by a combination of solar panels and wind turbines and have self-contained water supply and waste disposal systems. The main feature in the facility is a large two story public building designed to minimize heating and cooling requirements. It was an excellent example of the application of qualitative principles to a practical example.

The second project involved a team made up primarily of construction management students. Our department is quite proud of this program, which was initiated twenty years ago in response to numerous requests from local construction firms for engineers with the special capability of managing construction projects. Its graduates are doing highly responsible work all across the country.

This team chose to develop a comprehensive plan for the construction of a hypothetical 600 vehicle parking garage to be built on a specific site on the University campus. The garage was designed to be constructed using precast, prestressed concrete components, a technology that initially was unfamiliar to the students. The product of their work was extremely impressive; one practitioner in the audience commented that they had demonstrated all the skills an actual construction management firm would be expected to exhibit.

The third project came very close to being a "real world" one. Upper St. Clair Township is in the early stages of planning a hiking/biking trail connecting Boyce Mayview Park with the Montour Trail. Our team expanded this concept to include Fairview Park and the planned Hastings development on the site of what was Mayview Hospital, both of which are in South Fayette Township.

Their design resulted in a trail that would serve the needs of both townships. The trail winds along Chartiers Creek, providing an attractive venue for casual walkers and nature lovers, as well as a link to the Montour Trail for serious cyclists. A representative of Upper St. Clair attended the presentation and commented that their report would certainly influence the next phase of their deliberations. The development of trails of this type has become a significant area of interest for civil engineers.

The fourth team accepted the challenge of independently developing a design and construction management plan for a real project that was implemented this Fall. In October the Pennsylvania Turnpike was shut down for fifty five hours one weekend to permit the demolition and replacement of a major bridge, a remarkable feat that was accomplished "without a hitch". One of the engineers involved in this achievement is also an Adjunct Professor in our Construction Management program; he provided our team with sufficient background information and mentored them during their design effort.

The team designed a two-span continuous steel plate girder bridge, to be erected adjacent to the existing bridge, and then developed a plan to demolish the existing bridge and then slide the new bridge into place using Teflon slide plates. The team's bridge design and implementation plan were not identical to their actual counterparts, but were quite appropriate alternatives, according to their mentor.

The fifth team also had a project that was close to "real-world". One of our students is aware of a real problem in Volant, his home town. A very old dam on Neshannock Creek was breached recently and must either be demolished or replaced. The dam originally provided water for a turbine driven grist mill, a mill that the local residents would like to see put back into operation as a tourist attraction. Other complications include recreational use of the Creek by kayakers and by fly-fishermen.

This is a classic example of an engineering project with complicated social and economic constraints. Our team met with the various stakeholders and concluded that the best interests of all parties concerned would be met by constructing a new dam similar to the original one, incorporating the useable remnants of the old one. It is our opinion that their design will function as a feasibility study that will eventually result in its implementation by a professional engineering firm.

For the past five years a student organization known as Pitt HEADS has executed a series of humanitarian projects benefiting disadvantaged people in Latin America, frequently with the support of our Senior Design Project teams. This semester's project was an ambitious one, the installation of solar panels, storage batteries, and a microgrid in an indigenous village in a rain forest in Panama. Transporting material to this site required the use of powered canoes and back-packing through the jungle.

A team of construction management students produced a workable plan for the project, provided the necessary logistics, and participated in the actual on-site installation. Of equal importance was their initiation of planning for the phase of this project, based upon their hands-on experience. Although this project lacked the technical challenge of our typical projects, the experience of performing a difficult task in a hostile environment and benefitting needy people provided our students with an invaluable sense of accomplishment.

I realize that three and a half dozen Civil Engineering students at the University of Pittsburgh is a tiny sample of all the young people across our country who are making the transition into adulthood, but I have a very optimistic view of the future once this generation begins to influence our society. They are intelligent, well-educated, sensitive to the needs of people lacking their advantages, and committed to preserving our environment for the benefit of future generations. I am sure we are leaving our future in good hands.

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

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