Drexel Engineering students are no strangers to learning by doing,
combining real-world experience with classroom training. But a new course
this summer brought that synergy to a new level, bringing students together
with working industry professionals to find new approaches to stormwater
management planning in the age of accelerated climate change.
Franco Montalto, P.E., PhD, professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, and
co-PI of the
NOAA-funded Consortium for Climate Risks in the Urban Northeast
(CCRUN), the class included 10 Drexel students and 10 practicing engineers
and water department employees, mostly Drexel alumni. The participants
sought to address one of the most pressing issues in stormwater planning
that can leave people at risk.
“Conventional approaches to stormwater management can leave communities
vulnerable to flooding, especially when codes and policy are based on
historical precipitation patterns, not the ‘new normal’ associated with
climate change,” Montalto explained. “Precipitation patterns are changing
in different ways in different places. As we design drainage infrastructure
that will remain in the ground for decades to come, we need to be planning
for future conditions. Doing this is not easy. If we under-design the
drainage infrastructure, we can exacerbate flooding and associated damages.
If we over-design, we can run up infrastructure and development costs.
Today’s engineers need to understand how to evaluate climate risks, along
with all of the traditional concerns of performance, cost, maintenance and
A key challenge, Montalto said, is that to understand global climate
change, climate scientists need to model the whole world. Global climate
models (GCMs) lack the resolution required to make predictions at
hyper-local scales such as a development site, a block, a neighborhood, or
even a town. A variety of different “downscaling approaches” can be applied
to make GCM outputs useful to local stormwater planners, but these
techniques are rarely covered in conventional water resource engineering at
the university level. “It’s an evolving science,” Montalto said.
To address this gap, the class reviewed academic literature on the topic,
while working to downscale GCM model data for seven government entities in
Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. and create “design
storms of the future.” At the end of the course, the participants
presented their findings during the monthly CCRUN seminar, where it was attended by approximately 200 viewers, including stormwater
planners in the seven municipalities.
Montalto’s broader motivation for putting together the class was to
accelerate the rate at which climate and sustainability-related issues are
incorporated into the engineering curriculum and continuing education. Last
year, he was part of a committee of Drexel faculty who researched the
future of engineering education, as part of the College’s strategic
planning process. “Engineers still need a firm grounding in math, science
and design, but as the world changes in dramatic new ways, we need to find
new ways to continuously refresh the curriculum to address contemporary
challenges,” he said.
Opening the course to continuing education students was key to doing this.
The course offered 20 professional development hours to continuing
education students who paid a $600 course registration fee and took the
course alongside the Drexel students. Montalto will use the continuing
education revenue to hire an adjunct to repeat the class later this year,
working with other government partners, and further expanding the
University’s civic engagement on climate change. The course was brought
climate change awareness to the students and the industry in real time.
The interaction with practicing engineers also provided a boost for the
Drexel students. “The undergraduates had a unique opportunity to work
alongside individuals with professional positions that they may find
themselves holding in five to ten years,” Montalto said. “Through
problem-based learning with a real ‘class client’ the students were able to
see firsthand the impact they can have in their careers, as they address
challenges such as climate change.”