Students in Kari Watkins' Sustainable Transportation Abroad class ride bicycles in the kind of bike lanes that permeate the Netherlands. The class spent nearly two weeks riding across the country and exploring the Dutch approach to transportation. (Photo: Anna Nord)
There’s really nothing quite like being there.
Two groups of students from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering learned that first hand this summer as they traveled to London and the Netherlands to explore in real life the concepts and ideas they studied in the classroom.
The classes all are affiliated with the School’s global engineering leadership minor, fulfilling the program’s goals of giving students a global perspective, teaching them about different cultures, and exposing them to the grand engineering challenges facing the world.
Want to understand how Dutch transportation engineers have integrated transit systems and bicycling to create one of the world’s most famous biking cultures? What better way than to spend two weeks biking across the country and learning from those designers.
And how about a month in London, learning about structural engineering, construction management and historic structures? After all, the city is chock full of iconic structures that have stood the test of time.
Faculty members and students have logged thousands of miles in the air this summer to learn all of that, and maybe a few things about themselves, too. Experience their adventures through the eyes of a few student travelers.
The Sustainable Transportation Abroad class in Amsterdam. (Photo Courtesy: Kari Watkins)
Biking the Netherlands
For master’s student Anna Nord, 10 days biking throughout the Netherlands and studying the Dutch approach to transportation kept pushing her back to the same idea over and over again:
It’s all in the details.
“The detail and the dedication that they put into the design [of their transportation system] is so thoughtful,” Nord said a week or so after the early June trip, which also left her feeling, in her words, like a “photo maniac.”
“I felt like if I didn't photograph it, if I didn't document it in some way, I would somehow come back here and forget the little details.”
Bicyclists ride through a protected intersection for bikes and pedestrians in the Netherlands. "The intersection has no signals, but light rails, cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians all move through it without conflict," according to Anna Nord. (Photo: Anna Nord)
Details like placing a stop light before the crosswalk at an intersection so cars stop sooner and don’t encroach on crosswalk — something cars in the United States do often because the traffic light is farther away, often on the other side of the intersection.
Details like inverted speed bumps, chicanes, and painted pavement to slow traffic and highlight bike lanes.
Details like real-time transit information everywhere, even on a single bus stop pole.
“Before we left, I was like, ‘OK there are going to be a lot of bikes. There's going to be a lot of bikers.’ We were going over there to study the transportation system, and I was expecting to be overwhelmed by that,” Nord said. “But I was really impressed with the level of detail and the degree to which they prioritized bikes and pedestrians in the Netherlands.”
Based in Delft, the group used the country’s transit systems and bicycle infrastructure to explore Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague and other areas. They met with designers and Dutch officials. And they traveled with leaders from the government of Charleston, South Carolina, and the Atlanta Beltline who were interested in experiencing the Dutch approach and served as mentors for the students.
“We woke up at eight in the morning, and we would get on our bikes and bike four miles to meet with somebody, pick that person up, and we would go on a bike tour with them,” Nord said. “We'd bike for the rest of the day, stopping, looking at infrastructure. We really didn't get off of our bikes, and that, in and of itself, was so much fun.
“Before this trip and class, I never took cycling seriously. I thought it was simply a form of recreation. This trip to the Netherlands opened my eyes to the effectiveness of all modes of transportation,” said Spencer Maddox, a rising junior who’s pursuing the leadership minor. “Adding more asphalt to the ground won't alleviate congestion, but providing alternative modes of travel would help.”
Nord said she realized building infrastructure for bikes in the United States actually would be the easy part of making biking a viable way to get around.
“We can design the best place for biking and walking. I think the hard part comes in the people. It's the changing of the culture.”
In a first for the School, several dozen students completed some of their structural engineering degree requirements in a month-long study abroad led by two faculty members.
As rising senior Christina Zeigler put it: “You’ve just got to see the world, and why not do it while you're learning something?”
Christina Zeigler, center, lies on the glass floor of the London Tower Bridge. Zeigler traveled to London with a School of Civil and Environmental Engineering study abroad group, taking classes in structural engineering from Assistant Professor Lauren Stewart. (Photo: Christina Zeigler)
Zeigler took Introduction to Structural Engineering and Construction Engineering and Management in London with Lauren Stewart and Lisa Rosenstein, two courses she needs for her civil engineering degree. Some students also took a Historic Structures course.
All of them included lectures early in the day followed by afternoon field trips to famous London landmarks, like London Tower Bridge or Emirates Stadium, to explore engineering principles in person. It’s an approach that resonated with Zeigler.
“I need to see things, so being able to see it immediately after I learned, I automatically can attach what I learned in class to a monument,” she said. “So, learning about tie rods and going to the London Eye and seeing six tie rods right there — it's like, OK I got this. I understand this now.
Zeigler said Stewart and Rosenstein also made it clear students were to explore London and Europe while they were abroad, making sure the class was structured so students could travel and sightsee.
For Zeigler, that included an overnight trip to Amsterdam plus a visit to Disneyland Paris and 30 hours in the City of Light. She had been to Paris before, but realized quickly this trip would be different.
“A lot of the time I've been to France was with a friend who speaks French. I never realized that I don't speak French,” Zeigler said, laughing at the oversight a few weeks later. “But we worked it out. Everyone speaks English, but we were trying to be culturally appropriate and not automatically [ask everyone,] do you know English?”
Packing all of that course material and travel into just a month meant lots of work for students and professors alike.
“You have lots of projects. You're not going to sleep a lot. You're going to just have to suck it up,” Zeigler said.
But she said it was worth it. And students had plenty of options to explore London, too, with all kinds of Tech-organized cultural activities, bike tours, and day trips.
“They wanted us to experience London and not just do school.”