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Oyler: The future is in good hands with 'cream of the crop'

| Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

I belong to a book review club composed of a group of elderly men.

In the past 15 years, we have read most of the novels on the “all-time best” lists, a few well-known plays, and a number of excellent nonfiction books.

Most of the time the whole group is in general agreement regarding works we have read; last month was an exception. Our selection was a current best seller, “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt. I disliked it immensely and categorized it as “the story of a 13-year-old boy who suffers a tragedy, steals a valuable painting from the Museum of Modern Art, becomes a drug addict and swindler, and ends up a millionaire when in his mid-twenties”.

When we met to discuss this book, it was obvious that I was in for an argument with one of my friends. I explained that I couldn't see any merit in reading about a dysfunctional young degenerate. He replied that it is important for us older folks to understand how young people think today.

That upset me; my response was that I spend a lot of time these days with about a hundred young men and women, referring to my students at Pitt, and that none of them were like the character in this book. Just when I thought I had won the argument, he said, “But they are the cream of the crop, students at one of the best engineering schools in the country.” He, of course, was right, and that was the end of the argument.

My generation constructed impressive engineering projects all around the world, but at the same time generated significant environmental problems as well as social problems with citizens of undeveloped countries, many of which are still with us today. Today's young people must correct these mistakes.

Our faculty does a good job providing our undergraduates with a sound technical foundation in civil engineering. The students supplement that foundation with valuable real world experience from co-op assignments and internships. They have a genuine interest in the environment and a sincere commitment to protect it. In addition, many of them have already had experiences in foreign countries and have a much better understanding of other cultures than we did.

Perhaps the best way for me to document the capabilities of these students is to discuss the five senior design projects that were implemented this semester. In their final semester, our seniors are required to participate in a challenging “near-real world” team project; watching them accomplish this is an impressive experience.

One team took on a project that required expertise in all the civil engineering specialties – the feasibility of a multi-use development of an under-utilized group of properties in an area with massive problems of flooding, soil contamination and traffic congestion. The prototype for this property is an existing situation in the town of McCandless. The head of their planning commission attended the team's final presentation and was quite complimentary about their work.

Two teams designed pedestrian/biking trail bridges whose construction would significantly improve Pittsburgh's bikeway system. One crosses Woods Run Valley to connect the Brighton Heights neighborhood and Riverview Park; the other crosses the Norfolk Southern Railway tracks that separate Allegheny Commons Park into two parts. In the past, our teams have done feasibility studies for similar bridges that were designed by professional engineers and erected. The one they did for a bridge connecting the Bridgeville Public Library to the business district is the basis for a grant request now being compiled.

A team of construction management students obtained the bid package containing engineering information from PennDOT on the “Jughandle” project, the reconstruction of the intersection of Routes 88 and 51, and prepared an impressive construction management plan for it. Their plan included a detailed budget and schedule with materials, labor and equipment requirements for each of nearly 1,000 discrete activities.

The final project was implemented by a diversified team of 14 students. It involved an ongoing project begun by students in our department three semesters ago – the upgrading of the water distribution system for Kuna Nega, a primitive village in Panama.

I am indeed proud of “the cream of the crop” and believe that the future of our grandchildren will be in good hands when this generation gets involved in influencing the public policy decisions that will determine the direction our society is headed.

John Oyler is a columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-343- 1652 or

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