Seattle University

NCEES Engineering Education Award $10,000 winner

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Project: Introducing Engineering to Elementary School Students through Flood Mitigation in School Property


Students: Collin Bond, Priyanka Devi, Sara Kessel, Hinh Nguyen, and Emma Rusin

Faculty: Mike Marsolek, Ph.D., P.E. and Nirmala Gnanapragasam, Ph.D., P.E.

Professional Engineers: Jon Polka, P.E. and Matt McNair, P.E.

Additional participants: Denise Di Santo, Sheri Padge, and Steve Simpson

Michael Marsolek Ph.D., P.E. and Nirmala Gnanapragasam Ph.D., P.E. are Associate Professors in the  Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Seattle University.

What value does a real-world project bring to the students?

Real-world capstone projects for our engineering seniors prepare them to enter the workforce with the necessary tools. They learn both technical and professional skills to be successful in their future career. They learn how to apply what they have learned in their courses to solve a real-world problem, learn to work as a team, interact with clients  (both engineers and non-engineers ), and manage schedules and budgets.

How do you decide which projects to work on?

We celebrated the 35th anniversary of our capstone program in 2022. Over the years, we have developed a strong network of sponsors who want to work with us on these real-world, capstone projects. They know our curriculum and our student skills. We also bring in new sponsors mostly through our alumni network. For the project, we look for a scope that is challenging but that could be completed in an academic year and supportive sponsors who are willing to mentor our students and support the faculty member who has the area of expertise or interest in the project area. We also survey our juniors to find out their areas of interests so that we could get a broad range of projects covering student interests.

How did this project prepare students for professional practice?

Students learned how various stakeholders could impact a project approach and the final product. They learned to work and communicate with engineers and non-engineers, including faculty and staff from the elementary school and with the surrounding neighborhood through a survey to create solutions that satisfied constraints not only on the technical side but on the stakeholder side as well. The students learned how to interact with a client, work as a team, and manage their time and budget. They became proficient in multiple new software tools to model the problem and design feasible solutions. They completed the project in a completely remote environment. As we slowly ease out of the pandemic, employers are looking for engineers who can work efficiently in a hybrid environment. This project experience was a definite plus for the students as they enter the workforce. This project also showed the students how engineering solutions can incorporate outreach to K-12 students and provide benefits for the wider community.

What advice do you have for other programs wanting to add similar collaborative projects to their curriculum?

  • If you are considering starting a capstone program, reach out to local and state agencies or other industries in your area. Explain the benefits they could reap sponsoring these real-life projects and brainstorm project ideas.

Project ideas:

  • Project ideas could be what are in sponsor’s backburners because they don’t have the human power to do it, but the findings of the student team could benefit the sponsor in the long run.
  • They might be projects that with some legwork could get local/state/federal funding for actual implementation. For example, we worked on a project on bridge replacement for a county and eventually the county used the student product to obtain state funding.
  • Our biggest supporters are our alumni. Once they enter the workforce, alumni appreciate the benefits of the capstone experience and want to give back to our program by sponsoring a project, being mentors/technical resources to students, and serving as advisors to teams.

Benefits to sponsors

  • It is an opportunity for the sponsors to train the next generation of engineers.
  • The project gives the sponsor an opportunity to observe the students over a period of time, and hire them upon graduation, if they decide to.
  • Young engineers from the sponsors could develop their project management skills by serving as mentors to these student teams.

This former student is currently with BHC Consultants in Seattle, Washington.

What did you like best about participating in this project?

The best part of participating in this project was the ability to work on a real, active project with professional engineers. It differed from typical school projects where the variables are known, and we try to find solutions. I liked being given the opportunity to see how unexpected variables of the real world can affect, change, and mold a project.

What did you learn?

I learned how to be an effective member of a team and utilize strengths to find the best fit outcomes for each scenario we encountered. Through the guidance of our faculty advisors and the professional engineers who participated, I gained a plethora of new skills that I have been able to employ continually in my new career.

How did the participation of professional engineers improve the experience?

Having professional engineers participate in our project not only yielded a real-world experience, but also let us glimpse into what the next step in our professional careers would look like. We were able to see how life as a new engineer would be (work expectations, effective communication, productive use of resources, etc.) which was especially helpful to those who weren’t able to participate in an internship due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

What do you think the engineers learned from working with students on this project?

I think the engineers got to go back to the root of why things are done certain ways in a project. They got to look at the project from a different angle through the eyes of new engineers to see how tasks could be approached in unique ways.

Why did you get involved with the project?

It was another opportunity to provide mentorship to students from my alma mater on an interesting project that included some community co-design elements.

How did you assist the students in the project?

I met with the students one to two times per week to help guide them on the project as well as to offer informal training sessions for CAD, GIS, and hydrology/hydraulics software.

What did you learn from working with the students?

One thing this team taught me was the value in recording instructional lectures and weekly meetings so that the students could refer to it as they went about their tasks.

What did you want students to learn from working with you?

I hope they got a good sense of the things that go into a feasibility study. I also hope they gained valuable hands-on experience using industry-standard software tools.