Idaho State University emphasizing hands-on experience
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Idaho State University emphasizing hands-on experience

How should you go about choosing your university?  While your decision should be based on a variety of factors, students pursuing careers in science and engineering should actively seek academically-enhancing and career-preparatory experiences within their chosen program.

The College of Science and Engineering at Idaho State University (ISU) will prioritize student involvement from the moment that you start.  One professor who excels in this effort is Dr Mustafa Mashal, Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.  With a strong research focus on structural and earthquake engineering, Mashal proactively engages students in many of his research projects.

“As part of my research, I experimentally test large specimens that represent building or bridge components, for example columns, connections, beams, slab, bracing, etc,” he explains. “We verify that the structure would resist earthquake forces and that it will not collapse for life safety purposes.”

Upon arriving at ISU, Mashal was pleasantly surprised to uncover the institution’s unique testing research equipment, including several powerful shake tables for dynamic (fast) testing, and universal testing machines for static (slow) testing. Mashal uses five labs for his research:  Civil Engineering Materials Lab, Concrete Lab, Structural Engineering Lab, Structural Dynamics Lab, and Strong Floor Lab.

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Source: Idaho State University

“Our aim is to make sure that our students are exposed to research experience and laboratory testing before graduation,” Dr Mashal adds. “I want them to build professional experience besides technical knowledge. I allow them to take charge on the project and build managerial/practical experience.”

Many of Mashal’s students, both undergraduate and graduate, become co-authors for peer-reviewed publications and attend prestigious conferences. One undergraduate student had the chance to work on a publication that was accepted for oral presentation at the 2017 International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering (IABSE) Symposium in Vancouver, Canada; a conference for industry professionals and scholars from around the world.

Two of Mashal’s undergraduate students attended the 2017 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Structures Congress in Denver, Colorado. This is one of the largest conferences in structural discipline, worldwide.  The students participated in technical sessions, met prospective employers and leaders from the structural engineering industry, joined in student activities during the conference and earned invaluable Professional Development Units that can be used to obtain Professional Engineering (PE) licenses.

In addition to the mentoring and guidance students receive from Mashal, many also receive financial support from the institution.  “We have secured good funding for our students from Idaho State Board of Education (STEM), ISU Internal Funding, and external funding from Idaho Transportation Department,” the Dr says.

One of Mashal’s students, Alma Rangel, was born in American Falls, Idaho, but went to live in Mexico from the age of two. She returned to the US when she was 17, eventually settling on the decision to study at ISU. “You get to interact with your professors one-on-one. Also, most of our professors do something else besides teaching,” she says.  “They get to share that knowledge with us and we don’t just learn from the book.”

Rangel appreciates Mashal’s efforts to connect classroom learning to the real world.  “From [Dr Mashal] I learned how to relate what I am learning in class to what I normally see around me,” she explains. “I learned that things don’t happen just because, everything has an explanation and I love to make those connections, I love to be able to apply what I learn in the classroom.”

Civil engineering student Jared Cantrell worked as a project manager while the new Strong Floor Laboratory was being constructed under Mashal’s direction.  “My involvement with this project allowed me, along with other students, to see the full engineering process, from design plans to construction, all while performing the hands-on work ourselves,” the student notes. “My personal responsibilities taught me important skills in management and communication with contractors and vendors.”

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Source: Idaho State University

ISU offers a unique program to support students as they gain valuable career-related experience.  The Career Internship Program (CPI) allows students to pursue paid internships directly relating to their future employment goals.  Jordan Stearns is a current CPI student working with Mashal.

“I received the project supervisor position to help with the construction of a new Structural Laboratory for Quasi-Static Cyclic testing for Dr Mashal,” says Jordan Stearns, a current CPI student working with Mashal.

“I took on the responsibility to coordinate, plan and carry out construction projects through professional companies and as an employee myself,” the student adds.  “I also created a professional website to be observed in the professional world, met with engineers and CEO’s of companies to obtain equipment for the new lab and conducted safety inspections. This position has shown me the details of a real-life project by seeing the engineering drawings, budgeting funds, carrying out site visits and assisting in construction.”

Not only do Mashal’s students gain industry-related experience, they also get a taste of what it’s like to be an educator.  For example, Caryn Havlovick worked alongside Mashal as a teaching assistant, assisting with leading the civil engineering materials program and lab, as well as the reinforced concrete course.

“I have gained the ability to organize lectures and teach classes,” she says.  “Now, I feel much more comfortable sharing what I know with others and trying to help them learn the course material.  I have gained more self-confidence in myself,” the student explains.

Now that Havlovick is a senior, she is certain that the decision she made to attend ISU was ideal for her.  “The campus and student body is relatively small, which provides a more personal and one-on-one interaction between professors and students,” she adds. “There are hiking and biking trails, streams and rivers to fish, hot springs to go to, and so many other great activities right at your doorstep. ISU is a great university that provides you with a one of a kind education and life experience!”

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Source: Idaho State University

When asked about the unique opportunities available to students at ISU, Mashal pointed out the diverse range of benefits students receive.

“Being involved in labs and learning how real-life structures behave under gravity and earthquake loads, being co-author for peer-reviewed publications, getting the chance to attend professional conferences, being exposed to project management, learning research skills, having the chance to interact with leaders and engineers from industry…are [among] the unique aspects of the undergraduate program we offer in structural engineering,” the Dr concludes. “Not many undergraduate students in civil engineering programs will have the chance to do this.”

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