University Community

Russ College faculty lead STEM workshop at Alexander Local Schools

Russ College of Engineering and Technology faculty Deborah McAvoy, associate professor of civil engineering, and Blake Regan, associate professor of instruction, hosted an educational workshop for students at Alexander Junior High/High School recently, focusing on mathematics and civil engineering.  

In five topics, McAvoy led a discussion about the Norfolk Southern train derailment that occurred in East Palestine, Ohio. She began the discussion by introducing the event and its details. Then she shifted into the mathematics of the tragedy — the forces and trajectory of the train — and the permeability of soil upon which the train derailed. Lastly, they discussed the surface water drainage and the implications to the groundwater flow shortly after the train derailed. After understanding all the individual civil engineering principles that influenced the disaster, students were then asked to design a train derailment containment system given local railroad curves that would minimize environmental risks if a derailment were to happen on their own tracks.  

“Our goal was to learn from the disaster in order to prevent another similar event from happening,” McAvoy said.  

Using resources like YouTube, historical events and modern-day examples, McAvoy was able to explain the historical relevance of civil and environmental engineering fundamentals like permeability, groundwater flow, calculus and physics. For example, the class studied how major cities in the early industrial United States were problematically designed, resulting in issues with their water systems. 

“We went back to the 1900s to discuss how major cities in the U.S. made grave mistakes in their potable water supplies that forever changed the way civil engineers design both water and wastewater supply systems. In the early 1900s, cholera led to the loss of life due to water supply contamination with e. coli bacteria as cities had their water influent (from a river) and wastewater effluent (to a river) designed in reverse of what we utilize today,” McAvoy said. 

Within each section, the students engaged in hands-on activities to better understand all the factors influencing the derailment. For example, students learned about trajectory by tying cars to strings to visualize identifying a tangent along a curve to predict a direction of travel. The students experimented with various types of soil material to see how quickly water was able to pass through the material. They also got to see how surface water flowed by engaging in an experiment in which they saw how contaminated water moved downstream.  

This week-long workshop served as a capstone to a year’s worth of material that Kerry Bullock, the sixth grade STEM teacher at Alexander Junior High/High School, put together. Bullock designed a curriculum to teach students about careers in STEM and encouraged them to think outside of the box, which made her students well prepared to design their own solutions to environmental challenges, like the Norfolk Southern train derailment. 

“There are so many issues in the world today that require combining elements from several disciplines in order to resolve the problem to the best possible solution. Many times, current events can provide a level of understanding that evokes emotions that can help students understand the necessity and urgency associated with the resolution,” McAvoy said.  

McAvoy and Regan plan to return to Bullock’s STEM class next year to teach students about engineering, calculus and the life cycle of an idea.  

June 16, 2023
Chloe Musick