A Class That Will Shape the Future of Stormwater Management

A stormwater drain.

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.

Led by 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 reliability.”

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.

Franco Montalto

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.”