Virtual spaces for realistic learning

Each summer, Carnegie Mellon University’s Civil & Environmental Engineering Department (CEE) offers a Summer Research Program where students complete paid work as full-time researchers alongside faculty advisors. The organizers this year were CEE Professors Susan Finger and Gerald Wang. Since the pandemic diminished opportunities for summer 2020 jobs and internships, the department ensured that the program could be completed digitally and would have enough research positions for a larger group of students. Over 30 master’s and undergraduate students participated in the program, which culminated in a special online poster session.

Research for the posters ran the gamut across the three specialty areas in CEE including Advanced Infrastructure Systems; Environmental Engineering, Sustainability and Science; and

Mechanics, Materials and Computing.

Concern for the wellbeing of the environment was a common theme among students’ projects, including work on modeling CO2 emissions caused by electricity use and work on using neural networks to visually detect oil in water samples based on surface sheen.

Community access to societal resources was another popular topic. Some students studied public school bus routes and neighborhood proximity to grocery stores. Others investigated how newer technologies, including autonomous vehicles and online grocery services, could help expand access. Many students chose Pittsburgh to be their case study, while some focused on other U.S. metropolitan hubs like Seattle and Chicago.

Several students researched novel materials and computational methods for civil and environmental engineering applications. Their posters shared results on a wide range of systems, including the behavior of liquid crystals, magnesium and various plastics under certain influences, such as heat and stress. Such work can help civil engineers tackle problems like microplastics in drinking water and the need for lightweight structural materials.

The students could have presented their posters using tried-and-true screen-sharing over Zoom, but the CEE faculty decided to try something new to make the event as engaging as poster sessions of years past. That’s where Gather came in. Gather is a digital event-hosting software developed by a team that includes CMU alumni, which simulates physical spaces in a delightful way. While attending the poster sessions, students navigated pixelated avatars of themselves across a bird’s-eye map of Carnegie Mellon’s campus.

“It’s important for students to engage socially since team-based solution of societally important problems is at the heart of civil and environmental engineering.” — Gerald Wang

The opening remarks for the event were held on the Cut, the central grassy lawns in the middle of campus. Posters could be found in the digital version of Kirr Commons, colloquially called the “black chairs,” a common meetup spot in the Cohon University Center. Students could even take a break from the technical chatter by retreating to the Schatz Dining Room.

“It’s important for students to engage socially since team-based solution of societally important problems is at the heart of civil and environmental engineering,” Wang said.

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