Peters brings nearly four decades of experience to teaching civil engineering senior design capstone

Peters brings nearly four decades of experience to teaching civil engineering senior design capstone

Calendar Icon Mar 09, 2016      Person Bust Icon By Karl Vogel     RSS Feed RSS

Randy Peters, associate professor of practice in civil engineering, is teaching a senior design capstone course after retiring as director/state engineer of the Nebraska Department of Roads.
Randy Peters, associate professor of practice in civil engineering, is teaching a senior design capstone course after retiring as director/state engineer of the Nebraska Department of Roads.
Randy Peters spent 38 years at the Nebraska Department of Roads, working his way up from a nonprofessional position in 1977 to becoming the department’s director/state engineer.

But the chance to come back to UNL, where he received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1987, and help prepare the engineers of the future was something he called “a natural fit.”

When he retired from NDOR in 2015, Peters accepted an offer to become an associate professor of practice in civil engineering. In his duties, he oversees teaching the capstone course in Lincoln.

He hopes to use his industry connections and experiences learned working his way up the ladder to give students a realistic view of professional life.

“The senior design capstone needs to have a strong professional practice element. It’s an open-ended design course rather than a lecture-and-exam course,” Peters said. “It’s strongly prefaced on having licensed professional engineers giving feedback to students in an authentic and real-world design situation.”

Peters’ students are working on a mixed-use development plan to fit inside the loop on East Campus. The 10-acre space north of the Dental College currently features green space, a recreational area with tennis courts, basketball courts and a parking lot. The new space, Peters said, should include those features but have a more environmentally friendly, sustainable storm water drainage system and a plan that conforms and integrates to the campus master plan.

“It has an element of redesigning the parking lot so cars can circulate in and out and so that you have enough parking stalls to meet future demand. At the same time there is a need to design a storm water system that is sustainable and better for the water quality and the livable quality within the campus and watershed,” Peters said.

“This is an agricultural campus with an arboretum and some natural green space. Our owner-client expects that our solutions will complement that environment.”

As Peters prepares to assess student capstone projects for the first time, he sat down to discuss his first year as a faculty member and his experiences in teaching student design:

What was it that made coming to UNL so interesting?

“There were several elements that converged. I had served on the Civil Engineering department’s advisory board since 2007. I stepped off voluntarily when I was no longer director of the Department of Roads. To me, it was natural to join the department and to teach the capstone course. I had insight into the areas I’m teaching in now. I was looking for an ‘encore’ career. To step in here was a nice alignment between my experience, my credentials and what the Department of Civil Engineering was looking for.”

What, for the department and students, are the benefits of your having recent experience in the industry when it comes to teaching this capstone? What gives you an edge and makes this a better experience for the students?

“I think it’s the familiarity with the breadth of purpose of this course. I have been a licensed professional engineer since 1987. I have experience doing design. I was a project manager in the department of roads, roadway design division, during the early 90s when we were building a lot of new expressways. I kind of cut my teeth on that and relish that experience.

“When develop a civil engineering project, it is often done on a very large public-scale.  It could be to design a traffic interchange or a water treatment plant, but whatever it is it affects a broad swath of stakeholders, every social strata, elected officials and potentially every citizen.  With public works projects you’re always working in a regulated environment, so permitting agencies are intimately involved in what you are doing. You have this real-world experience that you have to get outside of the technical silos in order to explain your work and, more or less, sell your work to a broad set of stakeholders.”

This being your first year with the capstone, how are the students responding to being in that sort of culture, in that civil engineering environment?

“I remember this from my undergraduate days, the capstone course takes students outside their comfort zone. There’s no single right answer to the problem because it’s not like looking at a math or physics problem through the formula and coming out with the right answer. It’s open-ended. You create your alternatives. There’s more than one right answer. You have to develop your own lines of inquiry to find those alternatives. Then you rely on your curriculum, what you’ve learned in your prerequisite courses to do the analysis of the alternatives you’ve developed. It’s the first time you get into that mind-set. You’re less certain about the givens in a problem than you are when it’s coming from a textbook or from a professor and you have to do some investigation to establish that these are the needs and the boundaries of the solution. It’s the open-endedness that puts the students outside their comfort zones.

“These students are seniors and they are used to rigorous work. I’m so gratified to see them form their teams almost instantly and dive into these problems with zeal.”

Is that zeal something that you carried with you through your career? Were you that same type of student when you were an undergraduate?

“Very definitely. When I was an undergraduate I was a non-traditional student. I had been out of the school chain, working in a pre-professional position at the Department of Roads. When I came back to earn a degree in civil engineering, I had that dual perspective of seeing how it’s being used in practice and knowing exactly which element and subdiscipline of civil engineering I wanted to focus on and making that in action. It’s a perspective you just have to see how what you’re learning as a college student is put into practice in a real-world setting. It’s often surprising to students that there are so many permutations of how the science can be deployed in an agency setting.”

What perspective do the students get from the course and how do you assess how much guidance they need to figuring out how to solve problems?

“These students impress me with their work ethic and native intelligence. A course like senior design, it is the culminating challenge that ties together their earlier prerequisite courses and lets them apply all their knowledge in a situation that’s a semester long. The perspective you get is that the technical competence is one aspect, and a vital aspect at that. But the engineering profession, its foremost principle is to safeguard the public, the safety and welfare of the people who use our products. That makes the technical competence paramount, but it’s one of dozens of ingredients.

“I see the light come on at times when a connection gets made. I have the background to say, ‘Look at this idea and do some analysis of it and see if it would work, see how big it would have to be, see what its costs would be.’ And there’s also this discovery that life is messy and that real-world problems don’t always fit neatly into the lessons from a textbook. I really like the process of discovery that goes on in what we call ‘the lab,’ or the work they do outside the lecture portion of this course.”

Is it kind of what you expected you’d be getting into? Are you finding that every day you too have to have those kind of creative solutions like the students do?

“It’s challenging for me. In a good way. Number one, you learn a lot from working with 30 students just to discover how they use software and IT devices. There’s a lot of discovery for me. It’s a challenge to be more diversified in your outlook as a professional.”