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Higher Learning

West Point students prepare to be leaders

By Margaret M. Mitchell

Solving complex civil engineering problems requires critical thinking, ingenuity, a willingness to see other points of view, a multidisciplinary approach, and the ability to lead in challenging circumstances. These elements are key components of CE401 Civil Engineering Professional Practice and Application, a senior-level civil engineering course at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. 

CE401 is an amalgamation of military methodology and civil engineering principles. “The course integrates the military and civil engineering professions in applying a doctrinal military ‘design process’ to address complex civil engineering problems,” explains Col. Joe Hanus, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, the director of West Point’s Civil Engineering Program and one of the instructors of the course. Teaching along with Hanus are retired Lt. Gen. Bill Grisoli, P.E., M.ASCE, Distinguished Chair of Civil Engineering, and Col. Brad W. Wambeke, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, the director of the Civil Engineering Division.

This design process is known as Army Design Methodology. It “applies critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe complex problems and approaches to solving them,” Hanus says. 

The ADM involves four steps: framing the operational environment, framing the problem, developing an operational approach, and developing a plan — a process that is most beneficial in the early stages of design and planning, according to Hanus. It is an iterative and incremental process; steps and plans are reworked as new information comes in or other demands arise.

image with arrows and boxes to illustrate the army design methodology.
ARMY DESIGN METHODOLOGY (Figure from ADP 5-0 The Operational Process, Courtesy of Department of the Army)

Establishing or framing the operational environment is the springboard for the rest of the problem-solving process. It involves assessing in detail the current environment and then determining what the optimal end result or environment is. According to course materials, there are four questions that help determine the operational environment. They include: 

  • What is going on?
  • Why has the situation developed?
  • What does it mean?
  • What is the real story?

The next step is to frame the problem, identifying the obstacles that are blocking progress and ultimately resolution. Once the problem is defined, the next step is to develop an operational approach and ascertain the “broad general actions” that could be taken to solve the issue. According to course materials, items to consider include:

  • If the problem is not required in the desired environment, remove the problem.
  • If the problem is required, change the behavior so it is no longer an obstacle.
  • The problem might be something is missing. Provide what is missing.

The last step is to devise a plan to solve the issue by employing the military decision-making process, which Hanus describes as “the formal design process that results in detailed military operation plans. It is analogous to detailed design.” 

Cadets apply ADM in increasing degrees as they complete group projects. The first is a study of the showdown between Robert Moses, an urban planner, master builder, and onetime New York City Parks commissioner, and Jane Jacobs, an activist and journalist. Moses wanted to construct a new highway through parts of Manhattan that would have severely altered the landscape, including demolishing a park and other buildings and tearing up neighborhoods. Jacobs led the fight against him and won; eventually, the plans were scrapped. A case like this is ideal because it enables the students to gain a general understanding of what a complex civil engineering problem looks like — the actors, relationships, and consequences (good or bad) of decisions.

The second project leads to the Mosul Dam in Iraq, a project that Hanus was part of. This is the first step to learning how to frame an operational environment. The students do that by creating a current state model of the problems associated with the dam. A current state model is a “framework to better understand the problem at the conceptual level,” says Hanus. “It usually consists of a graphic and a narrative that describe the current conditions of the environment in which a technical engineering problem exists. This environment is what makes the problem complex, as there are competing social, political, and economic demands from different stakeholders.” 

For the third project, they go deeper into the ADM, this time developing an operational approach to design the Missouri River Master Manual, a project that Grisoli led as the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwest Division. What makes this step fun for the cadets is that they have the opportunity to practice their communication, leadership, and critical-thinking skills as they role-play the various stakeholders in a mock U.S. Army Corps of Engineers town hall. 

The final project covers the work the Corps has done in New Jersey for the Green Brook Flood Mitigation Project. The area experienced major flooding in the early 1970s, and since then the Corps has worked to build levees and infrastructure to mitigate the effects of flooding. At this stage the cadets are ready to apply all the steps of the ADM. “The process allows them to synthesize and understand a wide variety of information from project documents, meetings with project leaders, and site visits,” Hanus notes. The last step is for them to hold a mock briefing with the Corps’ New York district commander to assume responsibility as the project engineer and present an operational approach to addressing this complex civil engineering project.

“This is truly an interdisciplinary approach that integrates a methodology from the military profession into the context of complex civil engineering problems,” Hanus says. It is a course that reinforces the technical skills and develops the operational skills the students will need to solve these multi­layered, deep civil engineering problems. It is also a course that instills in them the importance of ethical decision-making. “We want them to be leaders of character in seeking solutions to these problems,” he says. 

Preparing the cadets for their careers as civil engineers is a lot of work but well worth it. The skills and knowledge they will take with them in their careers across the globe are invaluable. “We educate and inspire our students to be ready to apply the Army Design Methodology to any complex problem. We want them to instinctually develop an understanding of a problem before they try to solve it.”  

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.”   

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.”

This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.

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