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Engineering Professional Development

Allen Wortley

Railroad engineering, revived

With merely one gallon of fuel, a train can move one ton of freight 400 miles.

Despite the astonishing fuel efficiency of trains, the railroad industry shrank dramatically in the 1970s. Today as fuel prices soar, trains again are becoming an attractive mode of transportation for freight and commuters.

As railroads make a comeback, so must railroad engineers. Currently, few universities in the United States offer undergraduate or graduate classes that teach engineers the basics in designing, building and maintaining railroads that are safe, efficient and consumer-oriented.

However, a comprehensive continuing education program is available: the Railroad Engineering Program, directed by Professor Emeritus C. Allen Wortley.

The program began in 2001 when Wortley developed a survey course covering the civil engineering fundamentals of the rail industry. More than 120 people from around the country came to Madison to sit in, and Wortley knew he was on to something.

“America’s prosperity depends on a sound transportation infrastructure,” says Wortley. “We must increase our commitment to rail—a key transportation component—to compete, reduce problems on our highways and skyways, reduce air pollution, save energy and meet future needs.”

One course has expanded into eight annual offerings lasting two to three days each and taught by experts from the rail industry. The courses feature a variety of topics, including highway-rail grade crossing safety, railway train control and signaling, rail transit passenger systems, freight railroad operating practices, and track design and maintenance. The most recent course covers railroad bridge engineering.

The UW-Madison Railroad Engineering Program is a model for other universities in the United States and Canada. Wortley hopes to see several universities begin programs for railroad research and education.

“Although ‘railroading’ is nothing new, there are new problems to be solved with new materials, methods and technologies,” he says.

The write stuff:
MEPP students hone
communication skills

Professor Patrick Eagan’s classroom has no chalkboards or desks. Instead, Eagan and Faculty Associate Paul Ross rely on computer monitors and phones to interact via webinars, E-mail and discussion forums with engineering students who are scattered all around the world.

Eagan and Ross teach Independent Reading and Research in Applied Engineering (IRRAE), a course in the Master of Engineering in Professional Practice degree program. MEPP is an online master’s program that emphasizes technical leadership. Designed for working professionals, the program accepts approximately 30 students per year.

In IRRAE, students develop independent projects that solve a practical problem related to their careers. Students are paired with faculty members, who assist as reviewers.

“As technology leaders, these students will be evaluating and communicating about new technologies throughout their careers,” says Eagan. “The value of IRRAE is they learn to access information and write about those technologies.”

Some students haven’t written anything beyond a bullet-point list in years, and another MEPP course offers help. The semester before IRRAE, students take Communicating Technical Information (CTI) with Faculty Associates Traci Nathans-Kelly and Christine Nicometo. In CTI, students complete a research project that is often a precursor to the summer IRRAE projects.

In addition to writing, CTI helps students refine presentation skills. “You can be as brilliant as you want, but if you can’t talk about a project, it’s going nowhere—it’s dead in the water,” Nathans-Kelly says.

Many employers notice the difference in their employees. More than 50 percent of students report receiving a raise or promotion before completing MEPP. Five years after graduation, 83 percent report career advancement.

The students aren’t the only ones writing papers. College of Engineering librarian Amy Kindschi, Eagan and Ross recently presented a paper to more than 100 people from the American Society for Engineering Education explaining how IRRAE equips MEPP students with strong research and analytical skills.

Information highway:
Center delivers technology
to road builders

Now it its 25th year of service to local officials and Wisconsin highway maintenance staff, the UW-Madison Transportation Information Center (TIC) embodies the spirit and practice of the Wisconsin Idea. With support and participation from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the transportation community, the TIC provides vital training and materials for nearly 2,000 local governments responsible for maintaining more than 100,000 miles of state roads.

“Roads are the skeleton for the physical facilities that make community life possible,” says Faculty Associate Steve Pudloski, who directs the TIC. “Good roads are necessary for a vital Wisconsin economy. High turnover in local governments and limited resources require low-cost training and accessible technical information for effective performance.”

TIC offers workshops, a quarterly newsletter, how-to manuals, fact sheets, videos and on-site programs to help local officials build better roads and maintain existing roads. In 2007, TIC conducted 80 workshops for more than 5,000 local officials.

In addition, TIC researchers have developed an innovative pavement surface evaluation and rating scale, PASER, which most Wisconsin communities and communities in other states use to rate roads and prioritize construction and maintenance projects. “A balance between construction and preventive maintenance is essential, because every dollar spent on prevention saves $4 to $5 on rehabilitation or reconstruction,” says Pudloski.

TIC is part of a national technology transfer program with a center in every state and seven regional centers serving tribal communities. Funded by a FHWA grant, matched by the Wisconsin DOT, and augmented by local governments through course registration fees and in-kind contributions by UW-Madison, TIC is a true partnership, extending the benefits of university transportation knowledge and research to the citizens of Wisconsin and beyond.

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