If You Build It, They Will Learn: Civil Engineering at Temple Ambler

Civil Engineering Students work to complete a 23-foot-long steel bridge.

More and more, faculty at Temple University are making a discovery of a different sort — the Temple University Ambler campus is an invaluable resource to conduct research and engage in hands-on learning in a broad array of disciplines.

At Temple Ambler, Civil Engineering and Earth and Environmental Science professors are researching seismic waves and earthquakes — an impossibility at Temple’s urban locations — while College of Science and Technology researchers study hydrology, weather and more. Criminal Justice experts are training the next generation of police officers and park rangers on campus while psychology students seek to understand the cognitive development of children in the Temple Infant and Child Lab. Students, faculty and staff also continue to expand a fully accredited aquaponics garden and research lab on campus while Temple Ambler is formally established as a field station.

“There is a great deal more research going on at Temple Ambler than I think most people realize,” said Susan Spinella Sacks, Manager of Research and Grants at Temple Ambler. “At 187-acres of woodlands, meadows, formal gardens, streams and more, one of the greatest resources that Temple Ambler provides to the University is space and a rich tapestry of environments in which to conduct research. Seismology, hydrology, stormwater management, horticulture, planning, landscape architecture, transportation, art, biology — there are so many hands-on learning opportunities to offer on campus.”

Temple Ambler, Sacks said, has resources available that are unique to the University “that allow students to really dig into what they are learning.”

“They are not just working with models or determining hypotheticals.," she said. "Our students are engaging in real-world applications for what they are learning. We have students presenting at international conferences where their research is being met with great interest.”

With the support of Dr. Robert Ryan, Associate Professor of Instruction in Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering, Civil Engineering students have been involved in several projects at Temple Ambler, which resulted in the creation of a concrete canoe, and a 23-foot-long steel bridge. Engineering students are expected to return to Temple Ambler later in 2020 or in 2021 for additional hands-on learning experiences.

“One of the fundamental opportunities at Temple Ambler is the availability of space. Engineering is squeezed to the bone for space. In terms of research and teaching opportunities, we need space to create hands-on experiences for our students to learn their craft,” said Ryan, who himself has been involved in a diverse array of research originating at Temple Ambler with a multidisciplinary team of faculty. “For example, there is a competition that Engineering takes part in to build a concrete canoe — the project was advised by Dr. Bechara Abboud. It’s very difficult to find a location to build a 21-foot-long canoe but Temple Ambler opens up a world of opportunities – you can experiment and get right to work.”

Being able to work at the Ambler Campus, Ryan said, “has provided our students an opportunity to work on projects that might not have been available to them and to look at these projects from different angles as they confer and work closely with students and faculty from other disciplines.”

Building Bridges

The Campus Lounge in Bright Hall at Temple Ambler was often transformed into a base of operations for a team of Civil Engineering students who spent three semesters “experiencing the civil design process from start to finish,” said Civil Engineering senior Kenneth Kiocho. The project was overseen by Dr. Sanghun Kim

“The task of our 16-member team was to design and build a 23-foot-long bridge for the American Institute of Steel Construction's Steel Bridge Competition,” he said. “Our team has been using the lounge in Temple Ambler's Bright Hall to practice building the bridge — we only have 45 minutes during competition — which must be able to hold 2,500 pounds.”

During the design process, Kiocho said, the team developed four different bridge designs and worked together to determine one design that was optimized for its “strength to weight ratio.” The students then used AutoCad to draft the pieces and send the designs off for fabrication. The group then contacted Sacks at Temple Ambler, who was able to find them the perfect space to practice assembling their bridge pieces.

“While we discovered that some of our pieces created some problems — holes misaligned and other issues — we’ve found that time has been our most difficult factor,” he said. “You work with what you have and you work as a team to try to determine solutions.”

While time was not their friend at the Mid-Atlantic Regional competition held at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, “the entire project has gave us tremendous insight into the whole design process,” said Kiocho.

“It makes you realize what you’ll be facing with full-size engineering projects and how essential teamwork will be in that process,” he said. “Temple Ambler has been a huge help in providing us the space in which to work and store our materials. We never had to worry about having somewhere to work and plan out the project.”

Multidisciplinary Opportunities

While engineering students have been very busy on campus, the spring and fall 2019 weren’t the first time Ryan’s students took advantage of the hands-on learning opportunities available at Temple Ambler.

“A couple of years ago, students from the engineering and landscape architecture senior design studios worked on a joint project to create a stormwater management plan for the large student parking lot at Temple Ambler — how could they manage and get rid of stormwater runoff,” he said. “They worked on rain gardens and bioswales that would be put in place throughout the parking lot.”

The project, Ryan said, “was a tremendous opportunity for the students to learn from each other.”

“In terms of plants, the engineers could determine where the water would go, but not necessarily what plants would succeed in that environment. Engineering students typically focus on how a system will perform; they don’t worry about public perception,” he said. “The landscape architecture students brought aesthetics to the design — they designed a system that looked like a stream. Together they were able to develop a stormwater management system that was both functional and would look incredible.” 

Dr. Ryan himself continues to work with Temple researchers at the Ambler Campus on several projects in collaboration with Dr. Laura Toran in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science and Susan Sacks.

“I worked with (Master of Landscape Architecture) student (now graduate) Erin Ramsden on a system to rank stormwater management projects. I think one of the great outcomes from this project is that as a student Erin had the opportunity to present this research at the Environmental and Water Resources Institute’s World Congress in Minneapolis,” he said. “This is an international conference and the attendees were very excited to hear about what we were doing in terms of stormwater management. It has provided them with an opportunity to explore complimentary disciplines, to examine projects in ways that engineers typically wouldn’t.”

Ryan is additionally working on projects that fall under the William Penn Upstream Suburban Philadelphia Stormwater Initiative. Temple is investigating stormwater management practices (SMPs) — how much do these improvements reduce stormwater runoff. One of the goals is to see how many SMPs are needed for marked improvement and where those SMPs need to be placed for the greatest impact.

“My undergraduate engineering students are doing some of the modeling and their findings were also presented at the Environmental and Water Resources Institute Conference, which is part of the American Society of Civil Engineers. I’m additionally continuing to work on our ongoing stormwater management research taking place along the I-95 corridor — in collaboration with Dr. Erica McKenzie, we’re modeling water quality; what happens to pollutants when they come into a stormwater basin,” he said. “We’re also developing a water quality improvement plan for the entire Wissahickon Basin with funding from the William Penn Foundation and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. Temple Ambler is part of the Wissahickon Basin, so it is a great location to work from as we develop scenarios to reduce sediment and floods and clean up the basin’s creeks.” 

Working with the Temple Ambler research team, Ryan said, has helped to foster innovation both outside and inside the classroom.

“One obvious example is in the tools we use. We’ve been able to innovate just by getting hands-on with the technology that each discipline is familiar with,” he said. “For example, we have access to Temple Ambler’s Trimble® Geo 7X handheld GPS device, which collects geospatial data to an accuracy of a centimeter — an invaluable tool for geomapping and gathering GIS (Geographic Information Systems) data and an excellent addition to what we have available to us for field research.”

A lot of Ryan’s engineering students “don’t have a familiarity with stormwater management modeling,” he said.

“A lot of the information I’m collecting in the field, I’m bringing right into the classroom. It’s fostered inventiveness,” he said. “I teach hydrology and all of the data we’re collecting in the watersheds of the Wissahickon Creek, Cobb’s Creek, and Tacony Creek will be used in the classroom. The course work evolves, inspired by the research.”

From an educational and research perspective, “Temple Ambler is a very collegial place,” said Ryan.

“It’s very open. The people I’m working with want to know what I’m thinking and I want to know what they are thinking. It’s a place where you want to share your work, a place where people help each other,” he said. “That collaborative environment helps generate ideas, which sparks innovation. It frees your mind, which I think is one of the best things about Temple Ambler.”