Someone recently asked me where I get my ideas for these columns. My response was that I frequently wrote about whatever happened to be dominating my thoughts that particular week. This week it was Pitt’s Civil Engineering Senior Design program.
It is instructive to read about Senior Design years ago and note how it reflects changing interests in our society. Transportation projects are a perfect example. Fifteen years ago they were dominated by vehicular traffic — finding ways to move automobiles and trucks more efficiently. This term we had three different projects in three different communities, each focused on multi-modal transportation, primarily pedestrians and bicyclists.
Closest to home was a project in Carnegie. We did two projects there last year — this term we were asked to submit recommendations for improving pedestrian and cycling mobility within the community. The final project produced a design to link the community with Carnegie Park by upgrading two corridors – Chestnut Street/ Forsythe Road and Franklin Avenue/Cooks Lane – enhancing non-vehicular traffic.
Carnegie has successfully survived the collapse of heavy industry in western Pennsylvania; Brownsville is a stark contrast. Their “Perennial Project” is an attempt by local residents to reverse that community’s downward spiral. They too wanted us to do another project on their behalf. Nemacolin Castle is a tourist attraction located on the hillside about three hundred yards from Market Street, Brownsville’s re-emerging downtown district. We were asked to convert a steep, abandoned brick street connecting them into a comfortable pedestrian/bicycle route.
The third project was related to the long-term effort to reconnect the Manchester neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s North Shore with the nearby riverfront on the Ohio River. Manchester was cut off from the Chateau neighborhood in the 1960s when the “Chinese Wall” supporting the Ohio River Boulevard was constructed. The City of Pittsburgh has produced a long-term plan to reconnect the two neighborhoods. We were asked to study short-term improvements that would enhance multi-modal access on Beaver and Chateau Streets as well as the lone underpass through the Chinese Wall at Juniata Street.
Also close to home was a project requested by the Collier Township manager – the remediation of a slope stability problem near the intersection of Nesbit Road and Thoms Run Road. The hillside is supported by a deteriorated crib wall. Our team considered three alternatives and ended up recommending an MSE (mechanically stabilized earth) retaining wall, a design which is cost-effective as well as being sustainable and attractive.
A little farther away is the Peters Lake Dam, a small earthen dam holding back an attractive recreational lake north of Waterdam Road. Recently the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection designated it as “High Hazard”. And indeed a very literal reading of the regulations confirms that it is incapable of accepting a rainfall of 11 inches in one hour and therefore must be modified. That, of course, is a storm of biblical proportions – perhaps we should do a project on designing an ark! The design team’s solution is to lower the level of the lake twelve feet and install a larger capacity spillway.
I had the privilege of serving as mentor for two projects. The first involved a local non-profit organization, “Open Field”, that is focused on producing positive social impact in urban environments through the medium of five-on-five soccer. Our team designed a complex with three five-on-five soccer “pitches” and an administration building to be constructed on an available property in the Spring Garden neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.
The other project was the design of a replacement bridge for a local construction firm to provide access for massive construction vehicles into and out of their storage yard. The project was proposed by one of our recent alumni; the team included two students who had performed co-op rotations with the firm and have accepted permanent employment with them. It is not surprising that the presentation this team gave was highly professional and almost “real-world”.
The project with the greatest technical challenge was one that designed a prototype pedestrian bridge constructed of bamboo. The nation of Fiji contacted Dr. Kent Harries with a request for such a bridge, spanning twenty meters. To implement this design the team was required to research this unique material and modify conventional design methods to accommodate it. The resulting design incorporates a thatch roof to protect the bamboo trusses from ultraviolet radiation.
For years the principal focus of our Environmental program has been on water quality; this term they added a course dealing with air pollution. Students in this course suggested a project related to the Allegheny County’s largest air pollution problem, the Clairton Coke Works. With excellent help from US Steel they decided to study the release of hydrogen sulfide from the byproducts part of the plant. Their final recommendation is the addition of a caustic scrubber in series with the existing baghouse.
The final project was another outstanding “near-real-world” example – the design of a disinfection system for Greenville’s existing waste water treatment plant. The facility currently discharges two million gallons of treated waste water into the Shenango River, occasionally exceeding water quality requirements. The team studied four alternatives and selected sodium hypochloride as the preferred disinfection process.
Because of continuing concerns about the pandemic, the final presentation format was, once again, virtual. Each team filmed a forty-five-minute video summarizing its work and posted it on a University website. Reviewers watched the video, then participated, virtually, in a thirty-minute “Question and Answer” session with the team members.
The group of reviewers included representatives of the actual clients, department alumni, local engineering practitioners, and interested faculty. Their participation and the different perspectives they represented provided a valuable body of constructive criticism.
I continue to be impressed with the performance of these students in their final term, each year. They are competent, enthusiastic, hard-working and dedicated to providing a service that will benefit some segment of our society. The future of our infrastructure is safe in their hands!
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