12-course curriculum creates path to a UVA master’s in engineering

The Virginia Department of Transportation’s motto, “We keep Virginia moving,” is never far from Jeff Tipton’s mind.

That’s the imperative behind the Essentials of Engineering Excellence Program, VDOT’s latest employee training and education partnership with the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Virginia. The center, located at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, runs the Federal Highway Administration-designated Local Technical Assistance Program for the state. As the VA LTAP administrator, the center acts as part of VDOT’s professional development arm, annually serving more than 2,000 transportation workers statewide with training for every phase of road and highway building, maintenance and administration.

“Our first mission is to move people in the safest, most efficient way possible. To do that, we need well-trained, competent professionals,” said Tipton, a senior training consultant with VDOT’s Human Resources workforce development office.

Nicknamed “E3,” Essentials of Engineering Excellence is tailored for the employees who design, construct and maintain the state’s roadways and bridges. Tipton said Garrett Moore, chief VDOT engineer since 2012, originated the program.

“Mr. Moore always wanted a technical training and development program for his engineers,” he said. “Working with a partner like the Center for Transportation Studies, we wanted to take his idea and build on it.”

The result is a flexible but rigorous curriculum that allows participants to advance their personal career goals while meeting their training needs for VDOT. Crucially, employees can opt to use E3 as a pathway to a master’s degree in engineering from the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, UVA’s home for civil, systems and environmental engineering.

Beth O'Donnell headshot

"E3 provides a bridge between continuing education and our department’s graduate programs in a way that embraces the concept of lifelong learning. After all, this is what the Center for Transportation Studies is all about."

Beth O’Donnell, director of the Virginia Local Technical Assistance Program

E3 participants who declare that they intend to pursue the master’s will matriculate into one of ESE’s Master of Engineering degree programs for working professionals upon successful completion. The School will waive the Graduate Record Exam and application fees. Additionally, six graduate credit hours earned through E3 will satisfy two courses toward the degree.

The E3 curriculum will offer 16 four-week courses. Students must complete 12 — six core and six elective — subjects. Successful candidates will earn a program certificate and two continuing education units for each four-week class. Leadership in each of VDOT’s nine districts and the central office will select the participants, who must hold a bachelor’s degree.

All classes are online, employing a mix of short video lectures — 15 minutes or less — given by the instructors, voiceover slide presentations, assignments, quizzes and discussion forums. Students are expected to devote about five hours a week to be completed as much during the workday as possible. VDOT is allocating 30 seats per class and estimates as many as 480 employees will ultimately participate in E3.

“E3 provides a bridge between continuing education and our department’s graduate programs in a way that embraces the concept of lifelong learning,” said Beth O’Donnell, director of the Virginia Local Technical Assistance Program. “After all, this is what the Center for Transportation Studies is all about.”

The training model is based on one that the center uses for the Virginia LTAP and the Tribal Technical Assistance Program, a similar federal program serving Native American communities throughout the country, said O’Donnell, who directs both programs. E3 instructors come from the field with extensive on-the-job experience and from academia, including UVA Engineering faculty. Lindsay Ivey Burden, a faculty member in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, is taking the lead on day-to-day operations of E3, serving as the center’s first point of contact for instructors and students. She is also teaching a course, Geotechnical Engineering.

“The effort to design, build and deploy the E3 program has required a new collaboration between the Engineering Systems and Environment Department and the Center for Transportation Studies team,” O’Donnell said. “A dynamic and valuable relationship has developed as a result, and I couldn’t be more excited about representing the program alongside Lindsay.”

Tracy Turpin headshot

"I’m pleased with the way the courses are aligned. It’s the right balance between the academic and VDOT’s technical needs. It’s important that the classes are relevant to the work that we do, otherwise my engineering staff wouldn’t benefit as much."

Tracy Turpin, Highway Safety Improvement Program project delivery program manager

Many of the instructors have VDOT ties, Ivey Burden noted. That helps make the courses all the more relevant and engaging, because some of them are battle-tested VDOT veterans. Philip Shucet, the agency’s one-time commissioner who is known as a public-sector fixer, is teaching Project and General Communications, one of the required courses that participants must take at the start of the curriculum.

“Phil’s communications experience, especially at VDOT, is itself really valuable,” Ivey Burden said. “He is very personable. His lecture videos are pretty funny. He’ll do impressions of good communications and bad communications and he uses good analogies.”

Yet for all his accomplishments, even Shucet is working with current VDOT employees, communications director Shannon Marshall and assistant state location and design engineer Jeff Cutright, who both contribute to the course content. Pairing a VDOT subject matter expert with each instructor was one of Tipton’s requirements when he sought bidders to administer the E3 program.

“It’s a training program with an academic benefit, but it’s about enhancing core technical skills first,” Tipton said. “We wanted it to be a collaboration, so participants get the best of both worlds. UVA faculty provide the theoretical principles and VDOT brings the real-world, real-time perspectives to the course that correlate to the job.”

Getting better on the job was enough incentive for Deepak Koirala, a Highway Safety Project Delivery team leader in the Traffic Engineering Division, who is enrolled in the E3 course on estimating. He already has master’s degrees in engineering and business.

“This course is personally for me to learn,” Koirala said. “It’s very relevant to what I do.”

He intends to finish the curriculum. The course selection is broad enough to fit any VDOT engineering role, he said, and it allows employees to gain multifunctional expertise. He trusts the quality of instruction from previous experience in Virginia Local Technical Assistance Program classes, but it’s E3’s flexibility that sealed the deal for him.

“The length of the program and online format give flexibility to balance work, training and personal life,” Koirala said. “And it helps me satisfy continuing education hours for my professional engineer and Professional Traffic Operations Engineer licenses.”

Koirala is one kind of employee Tipton had in mind when he was looking for a partner to develop E3. He needed a provider with a good understanding of adult education and development that could seamlessly meet participants’ academic needs and provide excellent student services and technical support for a large program.

Jeff Tipton headshot

"Participants can earn graduate credit and admission to arguably one of the best civil engineering master’s degree programs in the country. We designed E3 to give them the ability to move their careers in the direction they want. We’re hoping talented undergraduate students will see VDOT and public service as a viable option."

Jeff Tipton, senior training consultant, workforce development, VDOT

“E3 touches every section of this state where there is pavement,” Tipton said. “It was clear that the Center for Transportation Studies has the necessary infrastructure to build and sustain an effort of this size. I’m proud of what my team and Beth’s team have developed to date, making this into a program that’s being sought after within our agency.”

Tracy Turpin, who manages project delivery of the Highway Safety Improvement Program in the Traffic Engineering Division, does plan to pursue his master’s through E3 — as soon as a slot opens up. The degree is the cherry on top of the opportunity for professional development, he said. As a manager, though, it’s E3’s design that has him smiling.

“I’m pleased with the way the courses are aligned,” Turpin said. “It’s the right balance between the academic and VDOT’s technical needs. It’s important that the classes are relevant to the work that we do, otherwise my engineering staff wouldn’t benefit as much.

“It gives our younger engineers the opportunity to learn how VDOT manages programs and performs. Our engineers are also eager to stay challenged, and this will keep them fresh in our profession and up to date with the latest technology.”

Tipton believes E3 will lead to better, more efficient design and execution of infrastructure projects, ultimately saving Virginia taxpayers money — now and in the future. VDOT is looking ahead, he said, noting an ancillary benefit to the department.

“Participants can earn graduate credit and admission to arguably one of the best civil engineering master’s degree programs in the country,” he said. “We designed E3 to give them the ability to move their careers in the direction they want. We’re hoping talented undergraduate students will see VDOT and public service as a viable option. This is what we’re doing to invest in our people, so it’s both a retention and recruitment tool.”