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Global learning in our backyard

By Jacqueline Kelly

Bradley civil engineering and construction (CEC) students gain international experience overseas and at home, establishing Bradley as a leader in CEC education.

Dr. Amir Al-Khafaji, chair of Bradley’s Department of Civil Engineering and Construction, right, introduced Caterpillar Inc. CEO Doug Oberhelman at the Innovations Conference on Asphalt and Transportation last spring. Nearly 500 executives from business, government, and higher education from around the world attended the sold-out conference in Peoria.

World leaders from countries such as the United Kingdom, Jordan, Egypt, and others frequently make their way to Bradley’s campus.

“When you give students that kind of exposure, they take pride in being associated with people of that caliber and they listen to their thoughts,” says Dr. Amir Al-Khafaji, chair of the Department of Civil Engineering and Construction. “It’s a very unique set of experiences that transforms them into better people.”

Bradley helps transform them by jointly hosting conferences with industry leaders that attract foreign diplomats who are eager to share their expertise and network with top-quality students. During the annual Innovations Conference on Asphalt and Transportation, now in its 25th year, government policymakers, business executives, and scholars meet to discuss the newest innovations in transportation, develop partnerships, and discuss funding and regulations in the global economy. More than 20 CEC students attend the conference each year, learning about global perspectives in their fields and networking with executives from local, national, and international companies, including Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc.

“We’ve connected with three major entities: executives from the government, from education, and from industry,” Dr. Al-Khafaji says of the conference. “It brings together CEOs of major companies and customers of Caterpillar; it’s a win-win partnership.”

The CEC Department also helps host the International Construction Innovations Conference, which brings together construction industry leaders to discuss trends, share ideas, and develop solutions to challenges facing the industry. Held in 2004 and again in 2006, the conference has attracted participants from around the globe, including 96 Ph.D. recipients, 47 CEOs, 98 corporate presidents and vice presidents, and 12 government ministers. Among the delegates were Iraq’s minister of education and scientific research and the Iraqi ambassador to the United States. The partnerships established during the conference have helped create wealth in developing countries, develop online construction management techniques, restore infrastructure in Lebanon and Iraq, and build affordable housing in Egypt and Turkey.

Of course, not all global experience can be gained in Peoria. That’s why the department began its Global Explorers Program in 1996. Since then, nearly 250 students have studied overseas. The program provides students an opportunity to study for short courses, a semester or an entire year at universities around the globe. Countries visited include Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Norway, France, Jordan, and Malta. In Jordan, students met the assistant to the king. In the United Kingdom, they met the vice chancellor.

Dr. Kerrie Schattler examines Petra, a historical and archaeological city in Jordan.

During those excursions, students visit historic and cultural venues and interact with students from other countries while living in residence halls of partner universities, such as American University in Cairo, Egypt.

“When students take several classes through the Global Explorers Program or spend significant time abroad to take courses, they have the opportunity to develop expertise in international issues and become an asset to the company or agency they will eventually work for,” Dr. Al-Khafaji says.

Senior construction major Joe Furmanek spent the January Interim in Egypt and Jordan through the Global Explorers Program. He says he enjoyed learning about different construction techniques used in the Middle East and comparing U.S. building standards to those in other countries. He noticed nearly every building there was constructed with concrete and rebar.

“We really saw the practical applications of construction,” says Furmanek. “It really opened my eyes to different cultures. Before this, I never had an understanding of different cultures, and the trip was a good opportunity to learn about people from the Middle East and their customs.”

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A Bradley student rides a camel near the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt during a Global Explorers Program excursion.

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CEC students studied construction techniques of the Eiffel Tower in Paris

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Students stop at the Jerash Archeological site in Amman, Jordan.

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Students meet with Dr. Maen Nsour, CEO of the Jordan Investment Board and adviser to Jordan’s King Abdullah, in the capital following his presentation on economic developments in the Middle East.

Dr. Kerrie Schattler, an assistant professor in the CEC department, also traveled to Egypt and Jordan and brought back what she learned to the classroom.

“What I see and learn brings value to my students,” she says. “I’m interested in sustainability, not just infrastructure, and how the environment affects quality of life for people.”

As an engineer, Dr. Schattler believes it is her responsibility to improve not only the United States, but the world as well. She encourages her students to think broadly by applying what they learn in the classroom to real-life situations, such as those they observed in the Middle East.

“My laboratory is the transportation environment,” she says. “We never stop learning. We are constantly observing, asking questions. It’s valuable to have those conversations and learn from different countries.”

Students experience the global connection through courses such as probability, statistics, and decision-making in civil engineering or geotech-nical engineering. The classes are designed to provide students with the skills they need to thrive in the construction and civil engineering markets, whether they work in the United States or abroad.

 Says Dr. Al-Khafaji: “Our curricula are enhanced regularly to meet the changing needs of societies across the globe. We have developed strong partnerships with world-class organizations to better serve our students and community.”

In addition to using their skills internationally, students also contribute closer to home; CEC students volunteer to clean the Illinois River, and build homes and pocket parks through Habitat for Humanity. They also partner with high school and grade school students through Bridge Pals, which gives students an opportunity to construct and test balsa wood bridges.

Dr. Schattler and her colleagues work to provide students with opportunities to use their knowledge to benefit where they live. She is working with undergraduate and graduate students to study the effect of yellow flashing turn signals at Illinois intersections. CEC faculty routinely include students in their research and writing, and also involve students in meeting and working with clients such as Caterpillar and the Illinois Department of Transportation.

“We won’t put any limits on our students,” Dr. Schattler says. “They know they’re accountable to their clients. It makes their education process here amazing in terms of what they can do.”

Currently 21 undergraduate and 12 graduate students are collaborating with faculty on research topics ranging from environmental construction to transportation to pavement engineering to construction management. Support for the research comes from external grants through private and government agencies, the university and scholarships that total more than $720,000 since 2010. Some students receive funding through grants for their work collecting data, preparing reports, conducting construction tests, and taking samples. 

Middle school students constructed a balsa wood bridge during Bridge Pals, a program that pairs local students interested in construction and engineering with Bradley CEC volunteers.

Faculty members help students earn scholarships, receive grants, and improve their resumes. Sophomore civil engineering major Yara Bittar received an Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association scholarship as a freshman and credits faculty members for encouraging her. Since then, she earned internships in Peoria and her native Lebanon.

“The faculty help you trust and believe in yourself,” Bittar says. “They believed in me and gave me the chance to improve myself.”

CEC alumni are also part of the educational process. CEC alumnus Dave Williams of Peoria-based Williams Brothers Construction sits on the college’s advisory board and provides insight into new curriculum and industry trends, along with internships and jobs for students and alumni.

“Bradley students are more well-rounded than elsewhere,” says Williams, executive vice president of the construction firm, one of the largest contractors in the region. “Our students are good people and they do well in internships, and that follows them as they search for jobs.”

Dr. Al-Khafaji adds: “A global perspective is essential to virtually any business or individual in today’s world. The world marketplace is very different today than it was a decade or two ago. The most striking feature is the global competition for goods and services, which also means global opportunities for the enterprising and prepared individual.”

Under the leadership of CEC chair Dr. Amir Al-Khafaji, Bradley faculty members have received more than $720,000 in grants since 2010. Click here for a complete list.