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Drexel University Engineering Students Turn Bridge Into Living Laboratory

November 16, 2009

A team of Drexel University civil engineering students will use more than 100 sensors installed on the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge to gain real-world experience on how bridges operate. The students will use the bridge as a living-laboratory in a new form of engineering education designed to enhance safety by exposing future engineers to live, real-world data.

Students from Drexel and other universities, working with licensed engineers from Philadelphia-based Pennoni Associates, have toured the 80-year-old bridge and will begin using it in their coursework after a kick-off event Friday.

The bridge, opened in August 1929, connects Northeast Philadelphia to Palmyra, N.J. and is more than 500 feet long with three distinct portions to study. The bridge includes a main span, arch and draw bridge span.

The team, made up of undergraduate and graduate students, will use $200,000 worth of monitoring equipment to capture real-time data from the bridge span and approach highways. Grant funding from the National Science Foundation cover the costs of the project.

Drexel received the grant to develop a “learning bridge” in collaboration with Purdue University, Texas A&M University and Northeastern University. Students from Rowan and Rutgers University will contribute to the project.

The series of sensors will capture information on the impact of traffic levels, temperature and overall stress.

The program will challenge the way engineers are trained by allowing them to observe and monitor how active bridges are designed, operated and managed over their lifecycles.

The team hopes that by using the bridge as a living laboratory, students will gain unique insights often missed in traditional, lecture-based engineering programs.

“There is no question that this collaborative research project offers an outstanding opportunity to develop a new and more effective civil and environmental engineering education program,” Franklin Moon, assistant professor of civil engineering at Drexel’s College of Engineering said.

Information collected from the bridge, which has 50,000 users daily, will be streamed to students and researchers in the classroom for review and discussion.

Traditionally, engineering students learn analytical skills from hypothetical models of how different factors could impact a structure. With a real-world bridge as a living laboratory, students will use actual data in their study of common engineering issues.

In addition to monitoring data, students will learn about the bridge’s history, sociology of its users and community and environmental impact. The purpose is to provide engineering students with a full picture of both the technical and societal impact of their projects.

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News Media Contacts: Noah Cohen, Office of University Relations 215-895-2705, 267-228-5599 (cell) or noah.cohen@drexel.edu

Elizabeth Brachelli, College of Engineering 215-895-6454 or ebrachelli@coe.drexel.edu

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