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Release: Dec. 8, 1999

UI engineer teaches science of winter highway maintenance

IOWA CITY, Iowa — In baseball, it's home runs -- not the routine fielding plays -- that attract most of the fans' attention. Similarly, in civil engineering education, the focus has been on the design of majestic bridges and ribbon-like highways with relatively little thought given to their day-to-day maintenance.

But all that may be changing, thanks, in part, to a highway maintenance class taught over the Internet by University of Iowa College of Engineering Professor Wilfrid Nixon. Called "Winter Highway Maintenance," the class teaches snow and ice removal techniques to highway maintenance professionals in a way that wouldn't even have been possible 10 years ago.

"I'm using the Internet to teach winter highway maintenance, a field that used to be more of an art than a science," says Nixon. "But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a federal thrust in technology to advance winter highway maintenance in the United States.

"For example, by using sensors embedded in roadbeds to measure surface temperature we learned that there are other ways to deal with snow and ice, in addition to plowing and salting. I teach about that technology in class, and the fact that I'm getting feedback from students who use this technology on the job is illuminating to me," Nixon says.

The course, which has eight units ranging from "Blowing Snow and Winter Visibility" to "Friction, Abrasives, and Snow Removal Equipment," means something different to each of the 13 students, many of whom are experienced professionals. For Canadian Dave Macfarlane, a senior highway maintenance technician from Fredericton, New Brunswick and a 22-year veteran of the New Brunswick Department of Transportation, it's a chance to gain information that he can put to work immediately.

"Why take a course being offered halfway across the continent? Because you get to deal with people who have a wide variety of experiences, not just your neighbors," Macfarlane says. He adds that innovation is important in New Brunswick highway maintenance because nearly all major North American storm systems affect winter weather in his jurisdiction, located northeast of Maine. For example, one idea he received from the course involves using salt brine to pre-wet road salt and keep it from blowing off the road surface. It's a technique he's already passed along to others.

"I'm using the information gathered in the Iowa course to develop my own course. Last week I gave a course for highway supervisors and snowplow operators. It (the Iowa course) has been tremendous; I'll be sorry to see the semester end," Macfarlane says.

Bob Stowe, regional maintenance engineer and 20-year veteran of the Washington State Department of Transportation, said the course has expanded his knowledge of anti-icing solutions and techniques by bringing him into contact with other professionals. "Just the opportunity to discuss the many winter maintenance issues with people from around the country is amazing to me. We looked at where winter highway maintenance has gone from being reactive in the past to the proactive direction it currently has and is moving toward," Stowe said.

Significantly, Nixon sometimes assumes the role of student in his own classroom. "Sometimes I learn more from the students than they learn from me," Nixon says. "It's the professional nature of the students that makes the class enjoyable."

Nixon says that the Internet makes it possible to reach professionals in the field with instruction "so that they can know why they do things, so they can get a good theoretical basis." To be sure, the course has some things in common with other engineering courses being taught on the web. For instance, students find most of their readings and other materials on a computer web page. Also, students post work assignments on a computer bulletin board for the instructor to read and evaluate, but that's where the similarity to most other courses ends.

"Typically, engineering classes focus on design. Traditionally we haven't focused on how to maintain a bridge or a highway. Engineers build them, but these structures also have to be maintained for 30 years or more. This course is about the maintenance of those structures," Nixon says.