Technology gives engineering programs a real-world impact

Students will use sensors to examine how the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge reacts to daily traffic.
Students will use sensors to examine how the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge is affected by 50,000 daily commuters.

Drexel University engineering student Jeffrey Dowgala says real-time information recorded by electronic sensors has helped him and his classmates understand the many environmental factors that can affect a bridge—an impact impossible to explore in standard textbooks.

Philadelphia-based Drexel and prominent engineering programs at Northeastern University in Boston, Purdue University, and Texas A&M University secured $200,000 from the National Science Foundation last year to use monitoring equipment that shows how a nearby bridge reacts to traffic, heavy vehicles, and weather.

Information collected from each sensor will be streamed to university classrooms, where students and faculty members will analyze how the bridge handles its daily carloads.

“This allows students to see how a structure really behaves, instead of the idealistic ways bridges are supposed to behave when you are in the classroom,” said Dowgala, a Drexel senior. “We can see all the different factors that affect how the bridge behaves, rather than the simplistic forms studied in classroom.”

More than 100 sensors were installed on the 500-foot Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, which connects Palmyra, N.J., to northern Philadelphia. Engineering students will study the structure’s three main parts: the arch, the main span, and the draw bridge span.

Franklin Moon, assistant professor of civil engineering at Drexel’s College of Engineering, said even the most explanatory textbook diagrams can’t teach students what they learn by observing minute-by-minute data from an 80-year-old bridge that has 50,000 vehicles drive across it every day.

“The goal was to somehow show students the reality of what structures are,” Moon said. “Too often you go into a standard textbook and find line drawings, a beam, and columns. The students don’t understand the context of what they’re seeing.”

Engineering students at Drexel also will study social aspects of the monitored Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.

Curriculum will include sections on the history of the bridge, its environmental impact, and which populations use it most, according to Drexel’s web site. Studying the history of the bridge and its local population, Dowgala said, has given engineering students a more in-depth look at the structure and its effect on the local environment.

“You realize just how much there is to learn about it,” he said.

Studying the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge with the help of technology, Moon said, “really grabs the attention” of first-year students. Having access to information collected by the bridge sensors also has helped Moon hone his daily lectures.

“If I can’t teach something using the sensors, I have to ask myself if that lesson is relevant,” he said. “I know that … students are smart enough to know that a few lines on a piece of paper is not a real structure.”

Other students and researchers have used environmental sensors for educational purposes in recent years. In 2007, researchers from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., developed and installed electronic sensors powered by vibrations from passing cars and trucks.