Study examines future of transportation engineering education

Posted: September 27, 2021
Highway traffic at night
[image courtesy of Pixabay]

Transportation engineering master’s programs should advance students’ data and professional skills, and expand hands-on experiences to ensure their success in a rapidly evolving industry, a new study suggests.

Although transportation engineering programs in the United States are typically at the graduate level, the majority of existing research has focused on undergraduate courses. In order to bridge that gap, a team of Ohio State engineering researchers conducted a qualitative study focused on master’s-level transportation engineering curricula to understand how changes in job opportunities and responsibilities over the next five to 10 years will inform topics that graduate-level coursework should include to prepare future students for their careers.

The importance of big data and communications skills in transportation engineering are two findings that most intrigued engineering education PhD student Meg West, the study’s lead researcher.

“It was interesting to see the connection between big data and data science coming into civil engineering and how important that looks to be in the future,” said West, who also earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering at Ohio State. “Another piece is communications. We teach our students technical communication from the get go, but employers are still wanting more. So trying to figure out how we can better train our students to be effective communicators in the workplace is an interesting step forward.”

West conducted the study with Andre Carrel, assistant professor of civil, environmental and geodetic engineering, and Rachel Kajfez, assistant professor of engineering education. The research was published in the July 2021 issue of the Journal of Civil Engineering Education.

photos of West, Carrel and Kajfez
PhD student Meg West, Assistant Professor Andre Carrel and Assistant Professor Rachel Kajfez conducted the study.

The researchers interviewed a small number of experts from academia, industry and the public sector and used qualitative techniques to understand the future of transportation engineering and address three questions specific to transportation engineers with master’s degrees. First, how will employment opportunities evolve? Second, how will the work transportation engineers perform evolve? And finally, what topics should graduate-level curricula include to help students develop the skills required to succeed?

Interviewees predicted developments in the field impacting job opportunities and the work performed by transportation engineers in three main areas. First, new mobility options are creating new challenges to address, from retrofitting existing infrastructure to employing innovative approaches to design facilities. Also, the addition of technology- and data-driven companies to the transportation engineering ecosystem could create new jobs. Lastly, transportation engineers will have a new role to play as the bridge between data scientists, software engineers and city planners.

Based on the results, the team suggested key improvements for transportation engineering master’s programs. The first is continuing to include current core topics, while increasing the emphasis on teaching professional skills—such as communication, teamwork and project management—and skills in data management, analysis and visualization. Research and internship experiences, which are already elements of many transportation engineering programs, are highly valuable and could be enhanced by collaborations with other graduate programs.

The exploratory study also revealed potential areas for further investigation.

“I'm hopeful that the research-to-practice cycle is turned on from this paper and others will take the opportunity to expand upon that research and then hopefully implement it into practice in their own programs,” West said. “I think that's the most important part."