New partnership establishes a Canadian teaching city for engineering students

Optimizing traffic flow between the City of Oshawa, at right, and Toronto, lower left, is one challenge that Master of Engineering students in the Cities Engineering and Management program at U of T will study in the newly established ‘teaching city.’ (Image: Google Maps)


Medical doctors learn in immersive teaching hospitals — and now U of T Engineering students will have their own immersive learning opportunities within a real-life teaching city. Later this year, the City of Oshawa will become Canada’s first-ever living laboratory for urban research, allowing students to probe complex municipal issues and test practical solutions for the future.The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering is teaming up with the Canadian Urban Institute, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Durham College and the City of Oshawa to realize this first-of-its-kind partnership. As a ‘teaching municipality,’ Oshawa will connect engineering students with city staff, testing new technologies and methods on the ground and in real time.

“This is a new era for engineering education,” says Professor Brent Sleep, chair of the Department of Civil Engineering. “With this innovative partnership, through internships and research opportunities U of T Engineering students, including students in the Master of Engineering in Cities Engineering and Management (MEngCEM) program, will study and resolve real-life problems in today’s urban setting.”

A memorandum of understanding between the partners was signed June 5, 2017 at the Arts Resource Centre in downtown Oshawa. The coalition continues to invite participation from a variety of industry partners, which will expand the potential application areas for innovations studied in the city, including market-focused solutions for commercialization.

Moving beyond textbooks and laboratories, this dynamic urban lab will bring students and researchers closer to emerging trends. Potential areas for exploration could extend from current U of T studies in intelligent transportation systems, sustainable urban infrastructure including air pollution and health, drinking water systems and building sciences. The partnership will also seek to deepen evidence-based policy development and research-driven innovations from U of T MEngCEM students.

“Access to real-time urban data and systems will provide significant insights and transformative opportunities to assess problems and identify scalable and sustainable solutions for tomorrow,” says Sleep. “Learning outside lecture halls encourages students to interact with a multitude of stakeholders, learning to support and interact with policymakers, residents and their future colleagues.”

As urbanization intensifies the pressure on cities — from increased demand on utilities, to greater need for emergency services and schools, to urgent need for traffic and transit upgrades — a new generation of highly trained engineering talent will guide and manage new technologies, policies and practices to meet the needs of citizens across Canada and around the globe. The first student cohort will begin studying this experiential teaching municipality in 2018.

Preparing the next generation of engineering leaders to grow Africa’s megacities sustainably

Posted originally on U of T News | May 30th, 2017 by Tyler Irving

Left to right: Rahim Rezaie (U of T Engineering), Erastus M. Mwanaumo (Assistant Dean, School of Engineering, University of Zambia) and Professor Murray Metcalfe (U of T Engineering) at the University of Zambia. A partnership between U of T Engineering and various institutions in Africa aims to prepare the engineering leaders who will build the world’s fastest-growing cities.

Today, seven of the world’s 100 largest cities are in Africa. But by 2050, population models predict that this will rise to 21, and eventually reach 40 by the end of the century. By then, Africa will be home to five of the world’s ten largest cities, each with more than 50 million residents. That’s why U of T Engineering postdoctoral researcher Nadine Ibrahim (CivE) is delivering lectures to students half a world away.

Educational tools such as massively open online courses (MOOCs) offer a way for Ibrahim and her colleagues to share their expertise in sustainable cities with the students who will lead African cities through the coming transformation.

“There is a lot of infrastructure to be built, and a lot of engineers will be required to build it,” says Professor Murray Metcalfe, who is Professor, Globalization at U of T Engineering and the project director. “That creates a tremendous opportunity for African leaders to drive development that happens in a way that is sustainable, both economically and environmentally.”

Earlier this month, Ibrahim and her colleagues used an online platform to deliver a course on sustainable cities to a group of students at the African Leadership University in Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. Instructors were spread across four locations — Toronto, Oshawa, Boston and Mauritius — and at one point the students had to deal with torrential rains that kept them confined to their dorms, but the pilot project was deemed a success.

The three-day course served as the first test of the team’s larger and more ambitious goal: to develop scalable online courses that will help prepare the next generation of engineering leaders building sustainable cities across the entire African continent.

Ibrahim is adapting material from a course she teaches to undergraduate and graduate students at U of T: CIV 577 Infrastructure for Sustainable Cities. “The course challenges students to design an urban area, such as the port lands of Toronto, through to the year 2050,” she says. “This year students selected eight cities, including Cape Town and Dar es Salaam. It was very successful, and allowed us to see that this would work with students around the world.”

The team has spent the last several months laying the groundwork for a strong network of local partners across the African continent. Last summer, Ibrahim and PhD candidates Kirstin Newfield (CivE) and Antoine Despres-Bedward (OISE) travelled to institutions in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. They also attended a conference organized by the African Virtual University, an online-only institution based in Dakar, Senegal and Nairobi, Kenya.

Left to right: Professor Jackoniah Odumbe (Centre for Online and Distance Learning), Antoine Despres-Bedward (OISE ), Kirstin Newfield (U of T Enginering), Nadine Ibrahim (U of T Engineering), Professor James Nyangaya (Mechanical Engineering), Professor David Otieno Koteng (Civil and Construction Engineering), Professor Ernest Odhiambo (Mechanical Engineering) at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

A few months later, Metcalfe and research associate Rahim Rezaie followed up with a trip to institutions in Zambia, South Africa, Ghana and Ethiopia, and participated in the African Engineering Education Association Conference.“Everywhere we went, we looked at the student populations and the online capabilities,” says Ibrahim. “We tried to imagine what a virtual global classroom, and eventually a virtual lab, would look like. Everyone we talked to was excited about the project.”Among other collaborators on the project are Professor Brent Sleep (CivE), who is the principal investigator on a Connaught Global Challenge Award grant that will fund various aspects of the project, Professor Greg Evans (ChemE) and Professor Dan Hoornweg (UOIT and adjunct in CivE). The team has also received support from the Dean’s Strategic Fund and the U of T Learning and Education Advancement Fund (LEAF).

Building on the success of the pilot course, the team is now working on the first two small private online courses (SPOCs) they plan to deliver starting in early 2018. Involving academics at African partner universities in co-developing the course content is central to the team’s approach. The courses will be a mix of live instruction, recorded lectures and assignments that can be completed online.

Metcalfe says that the rapid pace of growth in Africa offers a chance to leapfrog over some of the technologies that have hindered sustainability in the developed world. “The analogy everyone points to is cell phones,” says Metcalfe. “In India and Africa, they have skipped right over land lines and elaborate telecom switches to something with a smaller footprint. We think African cities can do something similar in urban infrastructure.”

But for Ibrahim, the most inspiring part has been the students. “Whatever the challenges, they make it work,” she says. “Their hunger for knowledge is very motivating.”

Daniel Posen: new CivE faculty explores the relationship between public policy and the environment

In an increasingly interconnected and interdisciplinary world, the Department of Civil Engineering was pleased to welcome Prof. I. Daniel Posen as a new faculty member in January 2017.

We asked him a couple questions about his new appointment:

Could you explain the focus and (potential) impact of your research?

I usually describe my research as ‘system-scale environmental sustainability analysis,’ which basically means that I’m trying to understand the big picture when it comes to how both public and private decisions impact the environment. A key goal of this work is to help government and industry tailor their policies and investment decisions to improve environmental outcomes. Much of my work focuses on prioritizing greenhouse gas reduction strategies, especially when choosing among competing uses for biomass (energy/materials derived from plants), and within the urban environment. I also plan to incorporate a broader range of environmental metrics (e.g., related to air & water quality or resource use) to provide a holistic evaluation of these systems, and others.

Your academic background is unique, can you explain why your interests have varied from chemistry to economics to public policy to engineering?

There is actually a common theme linking my degrees together: sustainability. The research I do is inherently interdisciplinary, using tools from natural sciences, engineering, economics, and policy analysis. There is a lot of important work being done in each of these disciplines, and one of the biggest challenges is about how to link these different areas together to design systems with the best social and environmental outcomes. This is a key goal of my work, so it has been a real asset to have a background in these different fields.

Why did you choose U of T?

I’m originally from Toronto, and am passionate about doing research that benefits both Canada and the world. U of T is a top university in Canada, which has both a rich set of colleagues with whom I can collaborate, and allows me to work with some of the best students. The city of Toronto is also a great place to live and is an excellent environment for researching urban-scale sustainability.

 

What are you most looking forward to in your new position?

I really do love all aspects of the job: research, teaching, engaging with young researchers, being in an academic environment, etc. One thing that’s particularly exciting about being new here is the prospect of building new collaborations and starting to work with a whole new group of students and colleagues.

As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students?

For undergrads, I’d say it’s important to focus on key foundational skills in engineering, math, statistics and the like, but don’t neglect the broader picture – take advantage of your elective courses and make sure to step outside your field once in a while. For graduate students, likewise, start thinking early on about what skills you want to develop, and put in place a plan to develop them. At the same time, don’t fall into the temptation of only using those skills – make sure the tools you’re using fit the problem you want to answer.

What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering?

Like most professors, I’d say my mission is two-fold: make an impact with my research, and train the next generation of practitioners and scholars. In my case, that means I hope to help craft sensible environmental strategies at the local, national and global scale, while training our engineering graduates to think carefully and holistically about how they influence the systems around us.

Infrastructure’s impact: How public transit investments affect our environment

Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) analyses the environmental and social impact of large public transit infrastructure projects, informing policymakers as they decide which investments to make. (Photo: Tyler Irving)
Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) analyses the environmental and social impact of large public transit infrastructure projects, informing policymakers as they decide which investments to make. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) analyses the environmental and social impact of large public transit infrastructure projects, equipping policymakers with data as they decide which investments to make. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

 

This story originally appeared at U of T Engineering News

The benefits of building public transit include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, relieving traffic congestion and expanding a growing city. Yet each transit project is unique, and predicting its future effectiveness is difficult. Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) crunches the numbers on existing infrastructure to provide key decision-makers with a ‘reality check’ on the environmental and social impacts of today’s transit investments.

“Engineers usually aren’t involved in policymaking, and policymakers usually aren’t involved in engineering,” says Saxe. “I’m trying to bridge that gap.”

Saxe joined U of T Engineering in August 2016. Before completing her PhD at the University of Cambridge, she spent three years at a major consulting engineering firm in Toronto, working on projects such as the Eglinton Crosstown transit line and the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension.

“I love design, it’s amazing,” she says. “However, when you’re building things that people are going to use, you have to stay well within the limits of what you know for sure. I was curious about questions that we didn’t already know the answers to.”

During her PhD, Saxe conducted a detailed analysis of the London Underground’s extension of the Jubilee Line, completed in 1999. She gathered data on the greenhouse gases produced during construction and operation of the line, then used transit and land-use surveys to estimate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to people using the line and living near it. By combining the two, she could calculate the net environmental benefit of that transit project.

“It turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag,” she says. “If you make some optimistic assumptions, you could say that it broke even in terms of greenhouse gas emissions around 2012 or 2013. If you are more pessimistic, you’re looking at a greenhouse gas payback of twice as long.”

Saxe says that the Jubilee Line extension sees approximately 175 million trips per year. On projects where ridership is low, the environmental payback period can be much longer. Saxe also studied the Sheppard subway line in Toronto, and found that with a much lower ridership it initially struggled to provide greenhouse gas savings. Over time, the Sheppard Subway Line has benefited from the decreasing emissions associated with electricity in Ontario. The results of the Sheppard Subway study were recently published in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment.

“If you’re at Don Mills station, and you want to go north, east, or even southeast, the network doesn’t serve you yet,” she says. “We still see people from that area driving 70 per cent of the time, so unfortunately there’s just a lot less opportunity for savings.”

Saxe says that her dream project would be to follow a major piece of infrastructure, such as a new transit line, from its conception through construction and use for 20 or 30 years — essentially throughout her career.

“I want to answer questions like: why did we originally build it, how did we originally build it, how did it perform over its lifetime, how did we maintain it and what did it need?” she says. “If we know how our present decision-making affects things decades from now, we can make better decisions.”

Concrete check-up: Fae Azhari develops diagnostics for critical infrastructure

Professor Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) holds a sample of the self-sensing concrete she designed. Her work helps monitor the structural health of crucial infrastructure such as bridges, roads and hydroelectric dams. (Credit: Roberta Baker)

This story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News.

Canada will spend $125 billion on infrastructure maintenance and expansion in the next 10 years. Professor Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) is helping stretch those dollars farther by keeping our buildings, bridges, roads and reservoirs safe and structurally sound for longer.

Azhari’s research focuses on structural health monitoring. Just as you visit the doctor for periodic check-ups, structures need their health checked too — but instead of blood tests and heart rate measurements, engineers usually perform visual inspections and spot-checks with sensors and instruments.

“The problem with visual inspections is that they’re pretty subjective, and with periodic monitoring, you can miss certain events or failures,” says Azhari. “Now we’re moving toward continuous monitoring by incorporating permanent sensors on important structures to get real-time data.”

Degradation or damage suffered between inspections can have catastrophic consequences. In June 2013, a rail bridge just outside of downtown Calgary partially collapsed as a train was passing over it. The train, carrying flammable and toxic liquids, derailed. Emergency measures were taken to prevent the railcars from falling into the Bow River, which was running high with summer floodwater. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada determined that floodwaters had eroded the soil around the bridge’s foundations, causing the collapse. This loss of sediment from around foundational supports is called scour.

“Believe it or not, this happens very often, especially in North America and some Asian countries,” says Azhari. “Scour is a huge problem.”

For her PhD research at the University of California, Davis, Azhari tackled scour from a new angle: she took commercially available sensors that measure dissolved oxygen, typically used for agriculture or biological applications, and used them for sensing scour. Azhari’s design was to attach a number of oxygen sensors at increasing depths along the buried length of the bridge pier. If the pier is properly buried, the dissolved oxygen levels detected by the sensors should be very low — but as scour erodes the sediments and exposes the sensors to flowing water, the dissolved oxygen levels rise. As scour progresses, more and more sensors become exposed, indicating how badly scour is threatening the bridge’s structural integrity.

She has also worked on concrete sensors, including a design that integrates conductive carbon fibers and nanotubes into concrete, making it a self-sensing material. Measuring the resistance across the material reveals the stresses and strains on it. “This technology is well-proven in the laboratory, but moving it to the field is a big challenge,” says Azhari.

As she builds her research enterprise, Azhari plans to collaborate across disciplines and with key partners who could benefit from her sensors, as well her analysis and insight into the data that comes from them. “Transportation infrastructure, utilities, dams, power plants, wind turbines — basically any engineering system — needs maintenance and monitoring,” she says.

“It’s very important to get these sensors from prototype to implementation, and I want to work on that.”