Civil engineering students at Saint Louis University soon will be able to design and test steel beams and concrete frames at full-scale, thanks to a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. The $599,821 award will fund a new SLU lab that will encourage experiential learning and allow faculty members to study how their students learn in this setting.

SLU Engineering Students to Build Full-Scale Projects in New LabChris Carroll, PhD, PE, assistant professor of civil engineering and Ronaldo Luna, PhD, PE, chair and professor of civil engineering at Saint Louis University.Photo courtesy of Saint Louis University

The three-year project and study will be led by Chris Carroll, PhD, PE, assistant professor of civil engineering at Saint Louis University. Carroll developed a cost-effective model for a structural engineering lab that allows projects to be built and tested at full-scale.

“Small-scale projects sometimes limit what we can do and do not always accurately represent the behavior of a life-sized structure,” Carroll said. “This project will enable us to provide full-scale experiential learning opportunities for our students to better prepare them for the workforce.”  

Co-investigator Ronaldo Luna, PhD, PE, chair and professor of civil engineering at SLU, also emphasizes the need for hands-on experience.

“A lot of times students come out of a degree program only with book knowledge,” Luna said. “But, that’s not what’s needed in the real world.

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“We pride ourselves on giving students this hands-on experience. Many bigger universities have large labs but don’t allow undergrads to work in them. There aren’t that many schools in the country where undergraduate students get to do this size testing.”

The new funding will allow researchers Carroll, Luna and colleagues at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology to build labs with a modular testing system to which projects can be attached and tested. The system is strong enough to support simulated earthquake loads.  

“Chris designed an economic alternative to expensive research labs,” Luna said.  “The proof-of-concept works and now we’re taking our civil engineering department to the next level.”

The first year of the project will be spent setting up the lab and gathering baseline data from existing classrooms and labs. Researchers will spend subsequent years examining how students learn in the new lab setting.

The researchers aim to study how hands-on experience impacts student learning and prepares them for tasks they will face in the real world. Carroll and Luna hope to leverage their findings to improve undergraduate STEM education. 

Other researchers on the study include Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology faculty members John Aidoo, PhD, Kyle Kershaw, PhD, PE, and Matthew Lovell, PhD, PE.

Saint Louis University is a Catholic, Jesuit institution that values academic excellence, life-changing research, compassionate health care, and a strong commitment to faith and service. Founded in 1818, the university fosters the intellectual and character development of more than 13,500 students on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Building on a legacy of nearly 200 years, Saint Louis University continues to move forward with an unwavering commitment to a higher purpose, a greater good.