UA Partners with State Transportation Department Through Training Institute, Information Management

  • September 23rd, 2003

by Mary Wymer and Niko Corley

High-school students participating in the Advanced Transportation Institute wear their hard hats on a job site.
High-school students participating in the Advanced Transportation Institute wear their hard hats on a job site.

Experts at The University of Alabama have joined with the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) to provide needed services across the state and in the Black Belt region.

In one area, the University Transportation Center for Alabama (UTCA) has partnered with ALDOT during the last two summers to teach the Advanced Transportation Institute, which encourages traditionally under-represented minority groups to pursue careers in transportation engineering.

The week-long program is headquartered at ALDOT’s central office headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., providing easy access to practicing transportation professionals in close proximity to real-life transportation working environments.

Participants are African-Americans and females who are juniors and seniors from high schools in west-central Alabama, mainly from Wilcox, Lowndes, Autauga and Montgomery counties. The students were nominated to attend the institute by their high school teachers and guidance counselors.

The daily schedules consisted of information presentations in the morning and group projects or field trips in the afternoon. The topics discussed covered the wide range of transportation careers available, including bridges and bridge design, roadway materials and asphalt, environmental archaeology, transportation planning and safety, and intelligent transportation systems. Field trips included excursions to an asphalt plant, a soil-gravel pit and an environmental-archaeological site visit.

Labs were developed to help explore some of the topics including a computer-aided bridge design contest, a pin and straw bridge design, a concrete cylinder test and a safety egg drop.

“The goal of the Advanced Transportation Institute was to influence minority and women high-school students to enter the transportation field,” explained Dr. Daniel Turner, director of the UTCA. “The results from the last two years have been positive because most of the students who attended now will consider a career in transportation.”

The UTCA conducts transportation education, research and technology transfer activities using faculty members and students from UA, The University of Alabama at Birmingham and The University of Alabama in Huntsville.

UA Keeping State’s Infrastructure in Check

During the 1950s, an effort was started to create a system of interstate highways across the nation. The Interstate Highway System was completed in the early 1990s, and there was a shift from construction to an emphasis on maintenance and reconstruction of existing structure.

The planners and engineers at ALDOT then faced the problem of managing the information necessary to determine which roads are in dire need of repair and what work could be delayed. That’s when ALDOT approached the management information systems department at the Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration.

“There were a number of interstate bridges that were created during the Eisenhower administration. Those bridges are maturing and they were built during a very narrow time span, so there’s this future anticipated need out there,” Dr. Shane Sharpe, associate professor of management information sciences at UA, explained.

“You’re not going to get enough money to do all of them at one time nor do you have enough resources or manpower to do them at one time, so staging their replacement [and] planning alternate routes for those maintenance projects [was our goal].”

Through a faculty/student project, the MIS department has developed a database that incorporates the information needed to determine when and where repairs to Alabama’s infrastructure need to be made. By using the program, ALDOT can prioritize its efforts so that repairs are made to the most-needy structures first.

The first step MIS took was to determine how quickly bridges and roadways decayed and then to develop a way to tell when these structures would need renovation.

“We work with a number of different attributes for a bridge or roadway and then we look at those attributes so that we can fit either a road or a bridge to a particular type of decay curve. Then we forecast when it’s going to need maintenance and what type of maintenance. We are also in the process of determining the cost of maintenance for different types of assets,” Sharpe said. “That way we can make a comparison of roughly what it will cost them and look at the entire network of roadways and bridges and more effectively plan those projects and then anticipate current funding needs and future funding needs so that [ALDOT] can determine what their shortfalls are going to be.”

“We’ve used business graphics and geographic information systems to change the way that they view the data so that better decisions can be made,” Dr. David Hale, associate professor of MIS and director of the Enterprise Integration Lab, said.

Sharpe and Hale were quick to point out that it wasn’t a faculty-only effort, as nearly 50 students, primarily undergraduate seniors and M.B.A.’s, were involved in the project. Both Sharpe and Hale believe part of the reason MIS, which has been ranked in the top five programs of its type in the country, has seen so much success is because of the type of work students in the program are required to do.

“Our students all work on real-world business projects. They are working in these projects and systems that turn out real value to companies. That is one of the hallmarks of our program, which also means you have faculty out there working with real companies trying to drive real change and effective results within a company,” Sharpe said.

The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.