Thanks to SIIP funding, campus F&S partners with civil and environmental engineering


Mike Koon

The University of Illinois brings together some of the brightest young minds from around the world to learn from an elite group of faculty and researchers at the cutting edge of their respective fields, minds that have the potential to solve problems the campus faces every day.

This fall, thanks in part to funding from the College of Engineering’s Strategic Instructional Initiatives Program (SIIP), the Division of Facilities and Services is teaming with the Department of Civil and Environment Engineering with a unique program to link faculty and students with the many projects around campus.

The SIIP program, now in its second year, is a $1 million per year initiative by the College to provide major overhaul of its core courses. However, this course, the brainchild of CEE Professor Jeff Roesler and Jack Dempsey, the Associate Director for Sustainable Infrastructure in the Center for a Sustainable Environment, is a brand new offering.

Through a conversation with Roesler, Dempsey divulged plans to pitch a course on sustainability to the College of Business, but the more Roesler learned about the idea, the more he felt it belonged in CEE. The department agreed and after securing funding from SIIP, “Project and Experiment-Based Learning (CEE 398)” was born.

“In a sense, F&S is a 200 million-dollar-a-year-plus company overseeing over $3 billion dollar in assets of the University of Illinois,” Dempsey argued. “They hire consultants, operate power plants, run buildings, prepare roads, etc., all of which are taught on this campus, mostly in civil. The idea was to make it available to the faculty in their business of teaching students and doing research.”

“We’re interested in giving our younger students exposure to what civil engineers do and how civil engineers think,” Roesler said. “This also allows us way to practically connect sustainability concepts and practices with civil engineering.”

Students in the Project and Experiment-Based Learning (CEE 398) class are benefitting from a partnership with Facilities & Services.
Students in the Project and Experiment-Based Learning (CEE 398) class are benefitting from a partnership with Facilities & Services.
 A total 14 students comprise the first-year class that meets each Monday night. As a project-based learning course, the students are divided into groups of three of four and asked to study and make recommendations to solve an engineering problem observed on campus in the context of sustainability

One group, for instance, is studying the energy certification in the first five years of the Business Instructional Facility.  Another project focuses on secondary water usage and how the campus can better recycle water that’s already here on campus. Students will write a proposal on suggested improvements, analyze it, and determine whether it’s feasible. Each group will present its findings at a poster session on Monday, Dec. 9 at the M.T. Geoffrey Yeh Center in the Newmark Civil Engineering Building.

The course exposes students to a wide range of initiatives within civil engineering by bringing together a diverse group of people from around the department and campus. Besides Dempsey and Roesler, the rest of the instructors include Morgan Johnston, the Sustainability Coordinator on campus, Lance Schideman a professor in Agricultural and Biological Engineering; Art Schmidt, a CEE professor specializing in hydrology, Bill Sullivan, a professor in landscape architecture, and Mani Golparvar-Fard, an assistant professor in CEE specializing in machine learning applied to construction.

The University of Illinois has made a commitment to carbon neutral by 2050, so it’s not an accident that the projects are connected to sustainability in some way.

“Students realize that sustainability is a major component they should be thinking about no matter which field they choose,” Johnston said.

Students in CEE 398 get a tour of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Building construction site.
Students in CEE 398 get a tour of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Building construction site.
 In addition to the semester-long projects, students toured both Abbott Co-generation Plant, Urbana & Champaign wastewater treatment plant, and the construction site of the new Electrical and Computer Engineering building. They read about a variety of projects and services around campus and Champaign-Urbana. Instructors then provided case studies on specific situations within those disciplines.

Schideman offered a case study on using wastewater to grow algae to be used as a viable biofuel. Schmidt and T.J. Blakeman, an assistant engineer with the City of Champaign, offered a study on the Boneyard stormwater management and its link with economic development as it pertains to public policy. Sullivan provided a study on how landscape positively affects human health.

Professor Jeff Roesler helps students with their group project on sustainability.
Professor Jeff Roesler helps students with their group project on sustainability.
 Roesler said the class benefits students, by helping them decide a career path and secure knowledge that’s useful for a job interview, and faculty, by providing a shared instruction environment, one of the goals of the SIIP program in general. He says that when the class is offered next fall it will be for two credit hours, which should help attract even more students and will eventually be a required introductory course for CEE students down the road.

“I’m amazed how intense it has been,” Dempsey said. “The professors are spending a lot of time in making this thing work. It turned out that this is not at all the way I envisioned it to be, but it’s better. You won’t find a student that’s unhappy they are doing this.”

The course is just the beginning of larger idea by Dempsey -- to connect issues on campus with faculty and students, helping get them engaged in problems that they might make a contribution to solve.

“We’re hiring consultants all the time to answer questions,” Dempsey said. “The typical markup price is 250 to 300 percent. So we actually pay $255,000 for an $85,000 job.  If we have faculty that we could employ or have access to, it’s only going to grow and help. Engineers love showing off what they can do and the folks at F&S love to be connected to the faculty and the students.”

In Dempsey’s vision, within the structure of engineering, researchers could help test the viability of an asphalt binder by applying it to a parking lot. Outside the department, it means taking advantage of the experts across disciplines, including accounting, computer science, and business.

“There are sometimes big gaps in time between new technology and when it gets implemented,” Roesler said. “Hopefully, if you have a campus who is willing to try things, you can shorten the technology leap.”

“We’re also looking for sustainability fellows where faculty can be advisors on specific projects,” Johnston said. “Many times we are in the middle of a project only to find out there is somebody on campus who can answer a question we’ve been struggling with.”

Johnston indicates this idea actually fits into the campus’ strategic plan which means how much F&S contributes to the academic mission directly is measured.

“We’re trying to create a living, learning laboratory,” Johnston said.  “That’s about bringing together the academic and research side with the facilities and infrastructure, using our campus as a test bed for projects. We have what is essentially a small city here with our own code of compliance. So being able to facilitate a conversation between students who will ultimately have jobs like what we’re doing and the people who are doing it right here helps bridge that gap between operations and infrastructure and the academics.”

The Project and Experiment-Based Learning course is just one example of how this is being achieved.