Field trip of dreams

by William G. Gilroy

Notre Dame Engineering Students

Watch Video Video

An old saying about engineers states: “I am an engineer. I serve mankind by making dreams come true.”

An innovative program for juniors enrolled in the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences encourages them to both dream big and to dream of projects that have an enduring impact on people’s lives.

The program dates to 2003 when the department joined forces with engineering alum Dennis Murphy and his firm Kiewit to develop a field trip designed to introduce its majors to the challenges of large-scale projects.

“We want to expose our students to some of the biggest and most innovative infrastructure design and construction efforts going on in the United Sates,” said Joannes Westerink, a professor of civil engineering and geological sciences who leads the trips. “We want them to see first-hand the complexity of these structural, transportation, water resources and environmental projects that keep our nation productive, efficient and healthy and to interact one-on-one with design engineers.”

Joannes Westerink

To date, Westerink has led trips focused on “Harvesting the Mississippi River and Delta,” “New York City Infrastructure Basics” and “Southern Louisiana AND Mississippi Coastal Protection.”

The most recent Mississippi River and Delta trip was designed to help students understand the Mississippi and its deltaic system, the major transportation and water supply system it represents, the major hub of the system (New Orleans, where ocean going vessels transfer their goods to and from river barges), how to maintain the navigability of the system and the fresh water supply, the fisheries, the wetland and how to reduce the flooding risks involved from both the river and the ocean.

“Man’s influence on the system has evolved over the past 300 years, but the Katrina failures and devastation of five years ago spurred one of the largest and most intense infrastructure rebuilds in U.S. history,” Westerink said. “In particular, the $15 billion redesign and construction of the flood mitigation and risk reduction system around New Orleans was one of the focal points for the students.”

The New York trip acquainted students with infrastructure challenges inherent in creating and maintaining such landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge, the World Trade Center Transportation Center, the Empire State Building, the United Nations Headquarters, the Croton Filtration Plant and the Brooklyn’s Brighton Subway Line.

Westerink points out that Notre Dame alumni who occupy leading roles in the construction play an integral role on the class trips, offering both information about infrastructure projects and advice on job opportunities and internships.

And the interactions don’t end once the trip ends. Alumni who are the key movers and shakers in the engineering profession regularly return to campus to take part in the department’s Challenges and Innovations in Civil Engineering Lecture Series, where they describe for students their involvement in designing and building some of the most important structures in the country and the world. Students also have the opportunity to meet with the speakers over dinner and to learn more about their involvement in billion dollar projects.

“These trips and the lecture series really help our students see the wide range of opportunities available for them to be innovative leaders and also help them connect the classroom to the real world,” Westerink said.