Innovations Sometimes Come From Unlikely Sources
AMES, IA The world is always changing and the Iowa Department of Transportation needs to do everything possible to lead the changes in our industry. Finding new ideas and methods using energized and motivated college students working as interns raises the bar, not only for their peers, but for long-time Iowa DOTers.
Iowa DOT interns and co-op students are finding fulfilling and career-altering opportunities far beyond the mundane and low-level work that some people might associate with traditional internships.
Kevin Jones, an Iowa DOT leader in the materials lab, said, "When the opportunity to get new technology comes along, sometimes we need to move quickly to get the equipment, but that means we need to find creative ways to explore and fully utilize the updated capabilities. Utilizing interns to do the leg work allows our staff to supervise and learn along with them without as much of a time commitment."
Michelle Barger, an Iowa DOT chemist who works with the interns, said, "Some of the methods we work with are dated, but I don't have the time to explore all the capabilities of new equipment. Finding interns who have the ability and interest to take on this challenge means we can move forward with our technology and get more than just the typical work done."
Two of these innovative interns are Connor Feldotto, a chemical engineering undergraduate student, and Kyle Mason, a civil engineering undergraduate student, both working in the Iowa DOT's central materials lab in Ames, Iowa. While some interns come to the Iowa DOT on short-term, single-semester commitments, these two men have been able to work part time for the past several semesters, Feldotto since May 2016 and Mason since 2014.
For Feldotto, working at the Iowa DOT was his first "job in a lab." He said, "I wasn't sure what to expect, but Michelle is a wonderful teacher and I'm getting experience here that will help me in the future."
The work Feldotto is doing under Barger's watchful eye, is to use innovative technology to measure sulfate and chloride from limestone used as backfill material used under bridges. Barger said, "People take it for granted that we put in some rocks and that's all there is to it, when there's actually a lot of to consider when making a structure stable. We need to do quality testing to make sure the stone backfill material doesn't contain elements that may harm a road. The national testing methods take time and we are always seeking ways to develop a quicker method."
In 2014, the Iowa DOT obtained a piece of equipment that shoots X-rays into materials to identify their chemical composition. This testing method provides similar results to the elemental analysis the Iowa DOT currently does on the material, but is less time-consuming. However, since it is new, the research must be vetted and confirmed by the national groups in charge of these standards.
Feldotto is working on documenting the research and will be able to present his findings at the 2017 Mid-Continent Transportation Research Symposium this August. He said, "Getting to work on new technology and present the research at a conference is rare for an undergraduate."
Barger continued, "I don't know of anyone else who is using this technology to test run off water from limestone, but we were willing to give it a try."
Mason is on a similar path of exploring uses of new technology. He was able to present a research poster at a 2015 conference. His research centered on oxidation of asphalt binder.
Barger said, "Kyle's work is very complex. The equipment he's working with gives a specific fingerprint through analysis of chemical bonds. This can show how much the asphalt has aged by looking at how some bonds decrease. The amount of certain compounds gives us an indication of how brittle the asphalt is. This gives us data to help decide when to replace a road segment."
Barger summed up her experience with the intern program, "We could just continue the standard testing without broadening our horizons, but by having our interns explore alternative methods we may be able to contribute a new method that advances testing methods. It also provides a great learning experience for the student and helps us work smarter."
The Iowa Department of Transportation is planning more than 100 interns for the summer. Students will be working in nearly every part of the Iowa DOT including engineering, materials, planning, environmental and marketing. The majority of these positions are funded through the federal government and provide resources to develop and accomplish work that benefits the Iowa DOT and prepares the younger generation for successful transitions into meaningful careers.