Engineering Class Gets Close-Up View of ‘Hot’ Construction Site

Posted: April 4, 2011 at 1:01 am, Last Updated: April 4, 2011 at 9:55 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

The Highway Construction class visits the high-occupancy toll lane construction project on I-495 with their professor Nick Nicholson, second from the left. Photo by Evan Cantwell

You were required to wear a hard hat and a DayGlo vest. Beltway traffic was whizzing by many feet below. This was not your typical class field trip, but for a group of civil engineering students, it was the opportunity to see engineering in action.

The students were enrolled in a Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering (CEIE) special topics course titled Highway Construction, and they had one of the peak educational opportunities of their academic career when they visited the high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lane construction on Interstate 495 near Tysons Corner. Leading this tour was Ronaldo “Nick” Nicholson, an adjunct professor in the department.

This was the first time Nicholson taught a class at Mason. The chief engineer in Washington, D.C.’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) by day, Mason faculty member by night, Nicholson oversees highway, bridge and tunnel design for the District and brings that daily experience to the classroom.

Prior to working for DDOT, Nicholson was a project manager on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project, a massive, 10-year construction project that replaced an aging structure over the Potomac River connecting Virginia and Maryland.

With so much on his plate, why did Nicholson choose to take a gig at Mason teaching undergraduates?

Nicholson discusses construction specifics with civil engineering majors, including Jingui Hwang, far right. Photo by Evan Cantwell

“[The Woodrow Wilson Bridge] was one of those career projects,” he says. “I had reached my goals as an engineer and started thinking ‘what’s next?’”

Then the opportunity to teach presented itself.

“He’s a natural,” says Deborah J. Goodings, CEIE’s Dewberry Chair and department chair. “[Nicholson] was recommended by a colleague and had a number of the qualities we look for in adjunct faculty. Practical experience is a big factor.”

Nicholson says students found the tour, which he was able to arrange through his connections in the industry, “exciting and applicable to what they wanted to do in their careers.”

Senior civil and infrastructure engineering major Jingui Hwang didn’t know much about transportation systems in the United States until he took Nicholson’s class.

“I was inspired by the field trip,” he says. “It was a great opportunity to [help me] understand the transit system and ties in with my career goals.”

This semester Nicholson is teaching CEIE 490 Senior Design Infrastructure, and he already has a few repeat students, including Hwang.

“They are great,” says Nicholson of his CEIE students. “I challenge them, and they ask for more.”



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