Montana State University

MSU engineers take hot seat for public meeting training

November 27, 2007 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Montana State University civil engineering students debate planning issues Tuesday during an exercise called "Road Trip." The event was presented by engineers from Kittelson & Associates in Portland, Oregon. From left, Matt Selvig, (red shirt) Scobey; Sarah Karjala, Marshall, Minn.; James Hageman, Bozeman; Cody Croskey, Bozeman and Kate McDevitt, Anchorage, Alaska. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.)   High-Res Available

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Kate McDevitt had a problem: Her great-grandfather's dog was buried beneath a family garage that was slated for demolition under a $1 million state highway improvement project. The dog, known as Subgrade, had near-religious importance to the family and McDevitt wasn't about to let his resting place be disturbed just for the sake of a wider road.

It was just one of many problems facing McDevitt and 40 other Montana State University civil engineering students as they navigated their way through an imaginary public meeting on Tuesday in a MSU Strand Union Building ballroom. The exercise was a lesson in how to balance competing -- and sometimes unexpected -- interests.

"Every transportation project requires public meetings and typically those are run by transportation engineers," said Patrick McGowen, an assistant professor of civil engineering and a research engineer at MSU's Western Transportation Institute. "It's become a common part of the job for which students get almost no preparation in college. Mostly it's something you learn on the job."

McGowen's students acted out roles often found in new transportation projects: A mayor up for re-election; a homeowner who may lose his garage to a widened street; a pedestrian and bicycle advocate who wants good access; a developer who wants a driveway to her new restaurant; a state highway planner charged with widening a street and fixing an intersection.

"I purposely created conflicts between the roles so that people would understand there are different perspectives," said Del Huntington, a planner with Kittelson & Associates, a Portland, Ore.,-based transportation-engineering firm.

Huntington designed the role-playing scenario, known as "Road Trip," to help educate transportation engineers and policy makers. The idea of the game was inspired by a Chinese proverb, "Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand."

"I've always believed learning has to be an involved and dynamic process," Huntington said. "This scenario gets people to interact and not just be observers."

Though the great-grandfather's dog might sound far fetched, it is not unusual for such oddball issues to surface during public meetings, said Marc Butorac, also from Kittelson & Associates.

"The dog sounds funny, but you really run into those things," Butorac said. "Finding creative solutions to all the different problems that can arise is often the difference between a project that goes forward and one that doesn't."

For the students, the scenario was an hour of arguing, head scratching, compromising, bluffing and deal making.

"Engineers just want to design a road, but you can't just do that with so many parties involved," said Sarah Karjala, a master's degree candidate in transportation engineering from Marshall, Minn. Karjala played a state highway planner in the scenario.

"People have opinions you don't expect that end up affecting the project in ways you didn't anticipate," said James Hageman, a junior in civil engineering from Bozeman. Hageman played a business owner in the scenario.

Political and financial influence had their roles in the scenario as well.

"If you're a developer and have money to throw at a project, you can move things your way," said Jeremiah Johnson, from Bozeman, who played that role.

Matt Selvig, of Scobey, who played a mayor, saw the scenario as being about compromise.

"Not everyone will get exactly what they want," he said.

For this lesson however, there were plenty of winners. Kittelson & Associates hosted the scenario for free and rolled it into a recruiting trip to hire new engineers from MSU. McGowen also got help from a handful of Montana-area professionals who donated their time as facilitators for the scenario.

"I'm always amazed at how engineers, particularly transportation engineers, are willing to donate their time to help the next generation of engineers," McGowen said.

As for McDevitt's dog, well ... the garage was torn down.

"It's pretty much about compromise," said McDevitt, who is from Anchorage, Alaska. "No one is going to get all they want. Though in a big development project, a homeowner has a smaller say because they don't have any money."

Contact: Patrick McGowen, assistant professor of civil engineering and research engineer at Western Transportation Institute at MSU, (406) 994-6529, or patm@coe.montana.edu.