The SourceCivil Engineering MagazineMultidisciplinary course addresses tomorrow’s smart cities
Higher Learning

Multidisciplinary course addresses tomorrow’s smart cities

By Margaret M. Mitchell

Transportation systems are changing rapidly and engineering colleges need to keep up with those changes. Autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, connected roadways, et cetera, are being tested around the country and are likely to become more mainstream in the coming decades, so our schools need to train our engineers to work in these fields. One such school that is aiming to do just that is Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. CMU offers an advanced undergraduate elective transportation course that is split into half semesters. The first is a “traditional” course in traffic engineering, which is taught by a practicing engineer. The second is called Smart Cities: Growth with Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), and it is taught by Sean Qian, Ph.D., M.ASCE, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The course is interdisciplinary, combining engineering, public policy, and business management principles and is thus cross-listed in the university’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. Smart Cities is taken by students from a variety of disciplines and interests, including civil and environmental engineering, architecture, urban design, public policy, information systems, business, computer science, human–computer interaction, and robotics, according to Qian. 

The overarching purpose of the class is for participants to develop an understanding of the dynamics of smart cities and how ITS is integrated into these cities, stated Qian. The course focuses on the concepts behind, and case studies of, each component of ITS, including intelligent sensing, shared mobility services, and autonomous and connected vehicle technology that enables vehicles to communicate with infrastructure. The course also features ITS applications—such as advanced traffic-control systems and intelligent parking management systems—and their deployment in the real world locally, nationally, and even internationally.

The course focuses on the concepts behind, and case studies of, each component of ITS, including intelligent sensing, shared mobility services, and autonomous and connected vehicle technology.

The eight-week minicourse is divided into four modules: introduction to smart cities and their purpose, ITS technology, ITS applications, and final project presentations. Each three-hour class focuses on a discrete component and is taught from engineering, public policy, and business management perspectives. Class starts with an overview of the component to be covered followed by a guest lecture and question-and-answer session. The guest lecturer is either a CMU faculty member or an industry or government ITS professional who brings “cutting-edge ITS projects, ideas, and experiences to the class,” stated Qian. 

A formal lecture, which complements what was imparted during the guest lecture, follows. After this is discussion time; students form mixed-discipline groups to discuss what they have learned and their “reflection questions,” which are based on the required reading they had been given the week prior. After the group discussions, the entire class reconvenes to debate the technological or policy implications of that particular ITS component. Then the process begins again, with Qian introducing the next week’s topic as well as the required reading and reflection questions for it.

Reflection is critical to understanding the content, according to Qian, and reflection assignments are 40 percent of the final grade. Having time to reflect on a topic before it’s presented in class makes the lectures and the discussions all the richer, and the reflection exercise serves as a springboard for group and class discussions.  

What makes this course innovative is its atypical class structure and its interdisciplinary approach.

Class participation makes up 10 percent of the grade, and the final project accounts for 50 percent. The final project must tackle a real-world ITS problem and have technical and public policy dimensions, Qian stated. Students work in multidisciplinary teams of three or four—at least one engineer (or computer scientist) and one policy analyst (social scientist). Qian believes students learn much better in teams because each member has valuable input and expertise based on his or her life and educational experiences. Teams can choose their topics, or if they’re having trouble coming up with something compelling, they brainstorm ideas with Qian. Teams present oral summaries as well as written reports. Each member of the group must have a part in the oral presentation, and it must have technology and policy components to be considered complete. In addition to the oral presentation, the final project has to include a clearly defined statement of the project’s goal or problem, literature review, research approach, analysis, results, conclusions, limitations of the existing technologies, and what can be done in the near future to further improve ITS.

What makes this course innovative is its atypical class structure for a transportation engineering course and its interdisciplinary approach, one that helps students build new skill sets, Qian noted. “ITS is a very interdisciplinary field, and there are public policy and business management aspects that make ITS solutions unique to traditional road-design problems.” 

Now in its fifth year, the course has “evolved and improved tremendously,” Qian said. The aim from the start has been to design an interdisciplinary course that not only featured innovative technologies but one that also had real-world components and applications, and the present course still meets this goal. For the foreseeable future, he will keep to the same class structure since it has proved to be popular.  The students enjoy the teamwork aspect and the discussions, which really come alive when those from different disciplines share their thoughts. 

“Training the next generation of transportation engineers, scientists, and managers who understand engineering design, systems frameworks, technologies, policies, and their real-world applications is my goal,” Qian said.

This article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Civil Engineering.                            

Do you have an innovative program for reaching and teaching today’s technology-savvy civil engineering students? If so, email [email protected] using the subject line “Higher Learning.”

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