Civil engineering

civil engineering

Mega toys

By Brett Szmajda

Hands-on learning is a critical part of next-generation civil engineering.

Students in QUT’s civil engineering course have exclusive access to a unique teacher that offers them an opportunity they won’t find at any other university in Australia. They get to ask a building how it is feeling.

QUT’s Science and Engineering Centre is Australia’s most advanced self-monitoring building, rigged with sensors to show how its materials respond to stresses and strains.

This ‘living laboratory’ is the brainchild of Professor Tommy Chan from QUT’s School of Civil Engineering and Built Environment, who’s at the forefront of a field called structural health monitoring (SHM).

Pioneered in bridges, SHM enables civil engineers to monitor the health of their creations, assessing their responses to stresses like traffic loads, or natural occurrences like earthquakes and cyclones.

“There are a few big bridges near Hong Kong Airport that I consider my ‘toys’. I’ve placed sensors and done a lot of tests on them,” says Tommy.

The Science and Engineering Centre’s system was turned on in late 2013, and it’s already had an exciting life: last year it detected magnitude 5.3 and 5.4 earthquakes, which struck about 300 km from Brisbane.

Predicting an earthquake’s impact typically relies on assumptions about how they affect structures. Tommy and his collaborators can now test these assumptions against real data from the Science and Engineering Centre.

The SHM technology used on the Centre is being integrated into the civil engineering course at QUT. Tommy considers this direct feedback to be a vital part of students’ understanding of engineering principles.

“When the student jumps on the footbridge, they can see the building’s response, which excites them,” says Tommy.

QUT graduate Genevieve De Michele appreciates this hands-on education.

“The practical approach to learning was one of my favourite things about the course. We built projects in our first year, and were encouraged to think outside the box and experiment,” she says.

Since graduating in 2013, Genevieve has leapt into a career in construction with infrastructure firm E3 Advisory, where she’s been involved in large-scale projects like the upgrade of Kingsford Smith Drive and the construction of the Legacy Way road tunnel in Brisbane.

“I had big input into how things went into the ground. Today, we drove through the tunnel, and it’s really nice to know that I was a part of its construction,” she says.

A big reason Tommy loves working and teaching in civil engineering is that his skills are realised in a tangible way.

“If you teach something you cannot see, touch or feel, it will be just philosophical thinking. That’s not my style,” says Tommy.

“To have a connection with real things is the most enjoyable part.”

TO GET THERE: qut.edu.au
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