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Kelvin Santiago-Chaparro setting up tripod
October 7, 2020

Surveying lab provides safe, valuable hands-on learning experience for engineering students

Written By: Alex Holloway

While the COVID-19 pandemic poses challenges as universities across the nation begin the fall semester, an early commitment to quality student experience has ensured that students in a civil and environmental engineering lab at UW-Madison will be able to safely gain vital hands-on experience using field equipment.

Kelvin Santiago-Chaparro, a civil and environmental engineering faculty associate, teaches CEE/GLE 291, or problem solving using computer tools. In the class and its associated lab, students learn basic physical computer programming skills and, crucially, how to use land surveying equipment like levels and total stations. Santiago-Chaparro says students will continue to get hands-on practice with the field equipment in the area around Camp Randall Stadium during the fall 2020 semester.

 senior Delaney Diamond
Civil and Environmental Engineering senior Delaney Diamond uses a total station during an outdoor lab in the CEE 291 class. Credit: Alex Holloway.

That’s all thanks to a recent purchase of additional surveying levels and total stations as the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering prepared to raise the course’s credit hour load from three to four. Santiago-Chaparro says the department initially purchased the levels and total stations to lower the student-to-equipment ratio and increase students’ time with the engineering tools. Though the new equipment was planned for first use during the spring 2020 semester, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shift to remote learning forced a delay.

Now, however, the department’s forward thinking means students can learn while practicing safe physical distancing.

“We used to have three or four students for every level,” Santiago-Chaparro says. “Now, we can lower that to two, or in some cases three, which allows for easier physical distancing. And, when you use a level, one person is on the level itself and the other is 50 to 70 feet away with the level rod. So in terms of safe learning and physical distancing, this is perfect.”

Santiago-Chaparro says that while students could take the course virtually, all of the students who registered for it have elected to take it in person. And though the class is ideal for in-person delivery, all lab sessions are recorded and Santiago-Chaparro says he can accommodate students who may miss class or who might not want to attend in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

CEE/GLE 291 now has 10 levels, 8 total stations, plenty of measuring wheels and prisms to support the surveying laboratory experience, and less than 20 students in each of its three labs. Santiago-Chaparro says he’ll run labs simultaneously each week so half the students can use total stations while the other half use levels. Because students will have more individual time with the equipment, Santiago-Chaparro says he can sharpen his focus on teaching students their different uses and functions.

“These are skills that our students need to be exposed to,” Santiago-Chaparro says. “When they do internships, a lot of them will be using levels out in the field. This prepares them for that, and once they have that familiarity it’s easier to take a task and understand what they need to do instead of doing it in the field and having to learn as they go.”

Students will survey outdoors early in the semester, before the winter chill sets in. Later in the class, they’ll work with Arduino prototyping boards to learn how to use basic physical computing skills in conjunction with external equipment that’s often used in civil engineering.

Santiago-Chaparro says some aspects of the class may remain virtual, such as the videos and lectures used during the spring semester. However, he says it’s crucial to safely familiarize students with the tools they’ll use once they start their careers—and that hands-on experience is more difficult to replicate virtually.

“Those are useful and we can do some of this course virtually,” he says. “But if possible, I’d rather have the students learn the basic equipment concepts very well by doing it out in the field, and then learn even more through our virtual instruction.”