Colorado School of Mines’ Focus on Underground Construction and Tunneling Helps Meet Industry Needs

Colorado School of Mines was officially founded in 1874.

Colorado School of Mines was officially founded in 1874.

Golden Opportunity

Developing the next generation of tunnel engineers is something that is weighing on the minds of just about all sectors within the industry – contractors, engineering companies, owners, and trade unions. In fact, TBM held a roundtable discussion at the North American Tunneling Conference this year focused on that very topic. Almost unanimously, the participants agreed that there is a dearth of students coming out of universities with an education that includes tunneling.

Not too long ago, institutions including the University of Illinois and Cal-Berkeley churned out engineers who entered the tunneling profession thanks to the efforts of professors like Ralph Peck, Ed Cording and Tor Brekke. But those professors and their peers eventually moved out of active teaching, leaving a void that persists today.

But perhaps we are beginning to turn a corner. Colorado School of Mines, a university that has a strong tradition in mining and earth sciences, has recently established a center of excellence and a degree program geared specifically on underground construction and tunneling – a first in the United States. The focus on tunneling has caught the eye of the industry, as well as students who engaging with industry in research, in the classroom and at professional events.

The Center for Underground Construction and Tunneling was founded in 2011, while the degree program is now entering its second full year, having launched in fall 2013. In fact, it is anticipated that the school will issues its first Master of Science Degrees in Underground Construction and Tunneling in December.

Mines’ Earth Mechanics Institute

Mines’ Earth Mechanics Institute is known as a leader in excavation equipment development and testing services.

Why Mines?
Colorado School of Mines was officially founded in 1874, when Colorado was still a U.S. Territory (statehood came in 1876). The school’s location in Golden, Colorado, a gold rush town and one-time territorial capital, made it an ideal location for an institution of higher learning dedicating to mining and earth sciences. Today, the school is home to more than 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students from across the globe, and is ranked among the top engineering schools in the nation.
The school has always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the underground construction and tunneling community, serving as a research facility and testing laboratory, and sending many graduates into the field. The Excavation Engineering and Earth Mechanics Institute was established at the school in 1974 and has long been recognized as a leader in excavation equipment development and testing services for contractors, owners, designers and equipment manufacturers. But Mines’ place within the tunneling industry took a big step forward with the establishment of the Center of Excellence in Underground Construction and Tunneling in 2011.

The Center has two goals, according to Prof. Mike Mooney, the Center’s director: Develop leaders and advance research solutions. “Like any university, we are all about educating the next generation of leaders for the industry, and so we educate undergraduate and graduate students across a number of different segments,” he said. “One unique aspect of the tunneling industry is the fact that it is an interdisciplinary field; it encompasses mining engineering, civil engineering, geological engineering, mechanical engineering, etc. So, a big component of the center is to be very interdisciplinary.

Students visit the Blue Plains Tunnel project in Washington, D.C.

Field trips to tunneling sites help students connect what they are learning in the classroom with what is going on the field. Here, students visit the Blue Plains Tunnel project in Washington, D.C.

“We promote a very applied research environment. We really want to help advance solutions that will move the industry forward, tackle complicated problems, help grow the market for tunneling by developing solutions, knowledge and technologies that allow tunnel design and tunnel construction in environments that perhaps haven’t been advanced before. It is a complicated topic, so it is an industry that is ripe for solutions through research.”

Prof. Priscilla Nelson, head of the Mining Department, concurs that Mines is an ideal host to the Center. “At Mines, we have a unique assemblage of expertise ready to collaboratively address problems, including civil, mechanical, environmental engineering, hydrology, geophysics, mining engineering, operations research, and economics and business.  And Denver is a hotbed of the mining industry, so we have great opportunity there for partnerships.  The crossover between mining and underground heavy construction is strong and under-developed. In addition, CSM has a worldwide reputation and many alumni around the world – we get visited by students, faculty, regulatory organizations and industry. This cements international collaborations.”

Prof. Paul Santi, head of Geology and Geological Engineering, added: “Our program in Underground Construction and Tunneling was developed specifically to provide the interdisciplinary education and experience needed to tackle modern underground projects. It is unique in the United States, joining departments of civil, mining and geological engineering. We have a significant number of faculty working in these areas.”

The Colorado School of Mines

The Colorado School of Mines is host to world-class short courses featuring leading experts from around the world.

The Center got a boost when Bruce Grewcock, a Mines alumnus and chairman and CEO of Kiewit Corp., contributed $5 million to support the school’s Underground Construction and Tunneling program, and provide scholarships for undergraduates. “Underground infrastructure is being built in increasingly complex geologic environments, so the demand for highly skilled professionals is growing,” said Grewcock. “Through partnerships with educational institutions like Mines, we can meet the demands of our growing industry.”

Mooney, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Grewcock University Endowed Chair in Underground Construction and Tunneling, says that momentum has been building. “Mines has a rich history and tradition of tunneling, and Bruce’s financial support really helped to catalyze the focus on underground construction and tunneling,” he said. “The administration, the faculty, the students – they all believe in this. When you have a shared vision, it is just a matter of moving forward.”

And moving forward is just what the school is doing. In fact, the administration is adding three faculty – one each in the Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mining Engineering, and Geology and Geological Engineering departments – as interest in the Underground Construction and Tunneling program continues, which is evidenced by the establishment of the industry-first degree program.
“We have seen great interest among graduate and undergraduate students in the program, as well as the industry,” Mooney said. “The establishment of the center really prompted us to ask ‘How do we become a great place for tunnel design and tunnel construction.’ We realized that creating a degree program that is interdisciplinary would help take us to the next level.”

Getting Better by Degrees
The degree program in Underground Construction and Tunneling mirrors some of the programs that have been established in Europe but had yet to make their way overseas. Again, a keystone of the underground degree program is the interdisciplinary approach that crosses civil, mining and geological engineering.

Graduate students can earn an MS or PhD in Underground Construction and Tunneling, while undergraduates will earn degrees within the traditional major areas with the option of pursuing a minor in underground construction and tunneling.

To date, students have shown great interest in the tunneling program, Mooney said. He cites the fact that guest lectures from industry experts regularly draw 50 or more students, and more students are participating in Short Courses sponsored by Mines’ Office of Special Programs and Continuing Education. Many students attended the Tunnel Short Course held Sept. 15-17, and they even hosted a reception for course attendees as way to further interact with industry. The reception was hosted by the Colorado School of Mines student chapter of the Underground Construction Association of SME, UCA’s first and only student chapter.

Laura Porras, a graduate student in mining engineering who is pursuing research in underground construction and tunneling, serves as president of the UCA of SME student chapter. “The students I talk to are really excited about the program. We plan regular lectures that bring in industry speakers, and we are planning two to three field trips during the school year. We are hoping to get more people involved with the program.”

Several students attended the North American Tunneling Conference in Los Angeles in June, with three earning UCA of SME Executive Committee Scholarships (Lisa Mori, Erin Keough and Kevin Hart). In December, 19 students ventured to Seattle for a field trip to the SR 99 project.

One of the key aspects of the program is working with industry to arrange internships for the students. Porras, for example, interned with Moretrench and got involved with grouting and ground improvement. Brock Rysdahl and John Kuyt, each expected to graduate with Mines’ first MS degrees in Underground Construction and Tunneling in December, both interned during their studies – Kuyt with Barnard and Arup in San Francisco and Rysdahl with Traylor Brothers in Washington, D.C. Mooney said that internships is a critical part of the program. 13 students worked as interns during the first year of the program and Mooney hopes to grow that to 25 per year, which further reinforces the relationship between CSM and industry.

Meanwhile, tunneling related research has been on the upswing at Mines, Mooney said. “The industry has been very receptive to us coming and working on project sites,” he said. “We are trying to continue to grow that. The word research is not a common term with this industry. There historically has not been a great relationship between industry and university in funding research, and so we are slowly but surely building some credibility, so to speak, in our capabilities.”

Sample research projects include soil conditioning and ground vibration monitoring as part of Sound Transit’s Northgate Link project; soil conditioning and EPB ground support studies on the Seattle SR 99 project; and ground deformation control studies on the Queens tunnels as part of the East Side Access project in New York. Additional areas of research including cross passage design and construction, advancing TBM data monitoring, and obstacle detection and imaging techniques ahead of TBMs. Early funders of Center research include The Robbins Company, Jay Dee Contractors, Hayward Baker and the National Science Foundation.

Moving Ahead
While the Center and degree program are off to a promising starts, there is still much work to be done. “The workforce issue is certainly forefront on the minds of this industry and so with the limited number of schools that are emphasizing underground, we have been fortunate to get the support of industry,” Mooney said. “It has been fantastic having industry leaders come and speak to the students and share their experiences. We are also lucky in the sense that these short courses are offered so our students can interact with industry multiple times per year.”

As long as there is a need to renew and build infrastructure, the need for qualified and educated professionals will continue to grow, Nelson said. “There will be more and more underground work, especially in urban areas,” she said. “And not just tunnels, but structures comprising many different shapes and sizes of spaces. Because of this, we need people – not just engineers – trained in underground architecture and underground planning integrated with planning for surface spaces and infrastructure. We also need more engineering expertise and experience inside owner organizations that will assist in the real management of risk – not relying on lawyers. Along with this, we need to consider new ways of excavating – not everything is a tunnel – such as developments in roadheaders, drill/blast, lasers, water jet excavation equipment and other new technology.

“A professional designation will assist in gaining the integrated risk and uncertainty management that our industry needs – including geologic, operations/equipment, financial, social license, and political. We as a society will have to be making harder decisions about investment and planning for our infrastructure, and the professional status would elevate the importance of engineering contributions to the dialog.”

For now, the university is continuing its search program and attracting new students to the underground construction and tunneling arena.

“We are absolutely in growth mode,” Mooney said. “The faculty hires will allow us to scale up so that we’ll be able to really expand research and teaching, while growing the number of research projects we are working on with industry. At the same time we need to continue to recruit and train great undergrads and graduate students for the workforce. We are still in build mode and really ramping up full tilt. It is a pretty exciting time.”

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