When Paul Rodriguez (BS '13) travels down any street nowadays, the recent civil engineering graduate says he's always looking out for potholes and other street abnormalities. It's a natural reaction after spending eight months covering 205 miles to conduct a comprehensive Street Assessment Inventory for the City of Pharr.
He and three other students at The University of Texas-Pan American spent October 2012 to May 2013 working with the City of Pharr's engineering staff to tackle the real world task that comprised their civil engineering senior design project.
"I learned a lot," said Rodriguez. "I learned how a city works and how the city engineer runs different types of projects - we got to see a lot of that. As I got more comfortable with the project, I thought this is for the community that I live in and I felt like it was a sense of duty. I really got into it, especially since I love the type of work that I am doing."
The team's completion of a job well done earned the program a proclamation from the city of Pharr naming June 4 as UTPA Civil Engineering Day and a $5,000 donation to support the program and its students. Upon graduation in May, three of the project's team members were immediately hired as paid interns by the City of McAllen to conduct a similar survey for their city.
"They did an exceptional job on this project," said Pharr City Engineer William F. Ueckert Jr., P.E. "We thought this was a good job for seniors who are going to be involved in work with other cities after they graduate. We hope to do this every year, have a civil engineering project for the seniors ... a project like a consultant would do that they really know what's in the real world by doing the work themselves."
Ueckert said the students, who worked daily with Pharr's Engineer in Training Dora Marin-Robles (BS '11), learned a lot about gathering, organizing and analyzing data. Marin-Robles, one of the first graduates from UTPA's three-year-old civil engineering program, said participating in a project like this or in an internship gives students an advantage when interviewing for a job.
"Just knowing people, knowing how the projects are run, and what goes into the planning and preparing projects to go out for bids, it is a real advantage to have that experience," she said.
The Senior Design Project - a keystone course for civil engineering students - allows students a great opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom said Jorge Vidal, the students' project adviser and a lecturer in UTPA's Civil Engineering Department.
Vidal said Pharr's Engineering Department requested the street assessment, which provided the city with a thorough analysis of the current street conditions, enabling city officials to better make recommendations for maintenance and improvements to the city's transportation infrastructure.
"The students worked very hard and ended up producing a high-quality report, which was actually more complete, thorough and accurate than what previous professional consultants had given the city, plus it was almost cost-free. Equivalent studies can range from $30 to $50K, therefore saving Pharr - and the taxpayers - a considerable amount of money," Vidal said.
The survey required students to collect data, using both traditional engineering methods and the latest GPS (Global Positioning System) technology, and evaluate several road characteristics - roughness (ride), surface distress (condition), surface skid characteristics, and structure (pavement strength and deflection). A rating system was used by the students as a guide as to how to evaluate road conditions in all categories. The students also noted and photographed many other street characteristics, such as sidewalks and curbs and gutters; subdivision names; missing or mislabeled streets; drainage; and inadequate signage and lighting. Additionally, the students had to provide a realistic cost estimate and comprehensive budgets for maintenance and reconstruction as needed.
"Not only did the team meet the challenge, but they went well beyond it by helping to develop an interactive and 'intelligent' estimating software template which the City will be able to use to update budgets as improvements are made and to keep all information current and accurate," Vidal said. "Our students were able to make a big difference by developing a "real world" engineering project for a real city, which helps real people. Isn't that what civil engineering is all about?"
The student team also included Saul Cruz (BS '13), Andrea Roldan (BS '13) and Isauro Gomez, who will graduate in December. They said they were well prepared to take on the project thanks to knowledgeable and supportive faculty, who Rodriguez said "give 110 percent."
Cruz said being able to implement some of what he learned in the classroom was invaluable.
"It is very beneficial for engineering students to get that taste of the real-world. It helps out for the future when we get a real job to see what it is like and not to have that shock from college to a real job," Cruz said. "We took turns as the project manager and making sure it was on schedule. From the beginning we knew the impact the project would have on the community, that is why we put all our efforts into it. We wanted to leave a good mark by UTPA students."
Go to the UTPA civil engineering website to learn more about the program.