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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Engineering Professor Gives Students Real-World Test

Capstone projects are a rite of passage.

2017-03-20
Mark Fischenich, Mankato Free Press, 3-19-2017

MANKATO — Every year in Mankato, there’s a group of Minnesota State University, Mankato students who spend a lot of time considering what’s possible.

Transforming a depleted gravel pit into a jewel of a community park? That was the senior capstone project of the 2014 class of Minnesota State Mankato civil engineering students.

Extending Blue Earth County Road 90 to the east to meet up with the Highway 14/Highway 60 intersection? Class of 2016.

A passenger rail depot and parking lot for downtown Mankato? Class of 2014.

A Highway 169 bypass of St. Peter? Class of 2009.

Those “senior capstone projects” — a rite of passage before students graduate from Minnesota State Mankato’s civil engineering program — have been overseen by associate professor Steve Druschel since 2009-10. And those projects reflect the personalities and traits he sees in his students.

“They’re creative, but they don’t look it,” he said. “They are stubborn — and some people might find that annoying — but I like people who won’t quit. They’re people who just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. ... And they like to say the magic words ‘Hey, watch this.’ But they don’t shy away when we say, ‘OK, show me the mathematics.’” Those attributes attracted Druschel to teaching after two decades of working as an engineer in the private sector — a career that was focused on the East Coast but involved projects in nearly 40 states.

His work included environmental engineering, including using micro-organisms to remove contaminants from hundreds of feet below the surface.

“The bugs do it cheaper than we do,” Druschel said. “... If you want them to eat a contaminant, you have to help them breathe and live and have nutrition.”

The career journey from microbes to college students traveled through an emergency assignment in 1998. His boss called Druschel, noted that he knew chemicals and plumbing, and wondered if he could fly to Chicago the next day.

The Environmental Protection Agency had a new set of regulations and had contracted with Druschel’s engineering firm to explain the rules to refinery and chemical plant officials. Druschel and a colleague found out quickly that the industrial workers were not fans of the EPA and their regulations, describing a scene of being chased from a classroom by annoyed attendees.

But he kept at it, saying he learned that he enjoys “walking into a tough room” and persuading people that, together, they can figure out solutions to a challenging problem. Druschel did traditional university teaching while working on his doctorate and came to Mankato a decade ago for a job at Minnesota State Mankato’s relatively new civil engineering program.

The freshmen are “like puppies,” he said. The department systematically gives them the tools they need to solve problems, then seriously challenges them as they progress through the program, hands out praise sparingly to prepare them for the real world, and then gives them those formidable senior capstone projects to test their mettle.

Consistent support from Mankato-based engineering firms, businesses and local governments results in projects that reflect the substantive engineering assignments the students will face in their professional lives. That’s far from the case in every community.

“They all have capstones,” Druschel said of civil engineering schools throughout America. “What we’ve found is ours is pretty much the envy of most schools. It’s pretty much a product of Mankato — we’re close to our community.”

The department is careful to not do projects that take work away from private engineers or developers. The department’s advisory board, made up of professionals in the field, also provides introductions to local companies and landowners who are being asked to submit to one of the capstone projects.

The quality and creativity of previous capstone projects also brings credibility when another is proposed.

“We don’t get laughed off the landscape when we have an idea,” said Druschel, mentioning this year’s project as an example.

The 2016-17 senior class is looking at a trio of possible reuses for a soon-tobe- shuttered stone quarry just south of Highway 14 in Mankato. One of the projects is to explore a glassedin agricultural production facility for the quarry, and Druschel said the civil engineering program’s supporters among area professionals is crucial in getting an entity like the Coughlan Companies to sign off on the project.

“We have introductions to people, who then take us seriously when we come up and say, ‘Hey, I have a crazy idea: I’d like to grow lettuce in your mine,’” he said.

After the company said yes, Druschel could go to his senior engineering students and tell them: OK, you’ve got the next school year to show how it might actually be done.

In April, they’ll show their work to professors and to the general public. But there’s another segment of the audience that the seniors will be preparing for even more — the previous Minnesota State Mankato civil engineering graduates who show up every time to grill the latest class.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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