Grant supports civil engineering workforce development

A WSU research team has received a U.S. Department of Commerce grant to train civil engineering students in emerging technologies as well as in social intelligence to better meet industry needs in Washington.

The two-year, $500,000 grant, funded by the Department of Commerce’s U.S. Economic Development Administration through the 2022 Chips and Science Act, aims to bridge the gap between industry-desired intelligence and traditional technical skills in civil engineering.

The project will provide work-based learning and training in state-of-the art technologies in areas such as building information modeling, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and 3D printing to better meet high demand for workers in areas such as civil, structural, transportation, and construction engineering.

The program will initially accept 15 students. The students will take a 1-credit course, in which they will get training in technical, technological, and social intelligence. After taking the course, they will do an internship with specific, weekly mentoring.

Students have varying degrees of soft skills when they enter the workplace for the first time, says Hongtao Dang, assistant professor in the School of Design and Construction who is leading the project. Many of them might not know how to communicate with professional colleagues, including how to properly write a professional email, dress professionally, set agendas, or run a meeting.

“This social intelligence part — some students are good, and some are not,” he said. “There’s a very diverse level of experience.”

Unlike traditional internships, the grant will provide a mentor who will meet with each student weekly for a minimum of two hours a week and who will provide personalized training.

“We want to train our students so that we can improve their social intelligence and train them to become leaders of the future,” he said.

The mentors will also be just a few years ahead of the student.

“This is the person that the student is going to grow into,” said Dang.

The program also gives students a chance to gain experience with state-of-the-art technologies that are oftentimes not available in university classrooms. Several industry partners will provide internship experiences as well as exposure for the students to technologies currently used in practice.

“Our university classes are focused on very traditional civil or construction engineering or construction management work and oftentimes do not include new emerging technologies,” said Dang. “They’re great classes and teach you the fundamental knowledge, but they may lack or try to catch up with the state-of-the art practice with emerging technologies.”

The researchers will measure the success of the program and hope to develop a plan in the next two years to make it self-sustaining with continued industry support.

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