University of Virginia engineering students have a new opportunity to learn how to lead large-scale construction and infrastructure projects.

The UVA Engineering Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, formed in 2018 with a vision for interdisciplinary engineering that addresses the needs of people and society, is expanding its curricula.

This fall, the department will introduce courses developed in a new partnership with leaders in industry as initial steps toward a construction engineering and management program. Together, the department and its partners are forming a consortium designed to provide more comprehensive education in the field. The goal is eventually to establish an academic track for undergraduates, a professional master’s degree and continuing education for working professionals.

Assistant professor Diana Franco Duran, who joined the department in June, is the founding director of the program. Duran is an expert in project scheduling and control, and has been recognized for her innovations in engineering education. The curriculum will address current and future engineering needs in infrastructure planning, design and construction, she said. Consortium members will contribute instruction and mentoring by practicing professionals through regular training workshops, project site visits and capstone projects.

Diana Franco Duran faculty portrait

Assistant professor Diana Franco Duran, who joined the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment in June 2020, is the founding director of the new construction engineering and management program.

Member companies will benefit by interacting with UVA students on projects and in classroom settings, establishing research collaborations with faculty and building a pipeline of highly qualified engineers who are also prepared to become effective managers and leaders.

“Our concept for construction engineering and management will add a lot of value for our students, especially with Diana’s creative leadership, backed by her research in engineering education,” said Brian L. Smith, professor and chair of the department. “We’re excited she’s here, and look forward to providing a quality program that serves our students, industry partners and society’s need for safe, efficient buildings and infrastructure.”

The plan also calls for allowing students to take non-engineering courses in relevant topics, such as those offered in the UVA McIntire School of Commerce real estate track, architecture, law and the School of Data Science.

“We want students to gain the knowledge and skills that they need as future professionals,” Duran said. “That’s why we want a curriculum that is more responsive to industry needs, links coursework to related disciplines across Grounds, and increases exposure to the latest construction technology.”

“The construction industry is on the verge of significant changes due to advanced technologies and automation,” said Arsalan Heydarian, an assistant professor in engineering systems and environment who helped to initiate the consortium and is working with Duran to design the program.

“One of our major goals is to integrate emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, building information modeling, 3-D printing and robotics into classrooms and collaborative research projects. Today’s civil engineers need to be proficient with tools and methods often associated with other areas of engineering, including machine learning and data analytics, risk analysis and the internet of things — intersections where our department’s deep systems engineering expertise is an inherent asset.”

Arsalan Heydarian portrait in Link Lab office

Arsalan Heydarian, an assistant professor in engineering systems and environment, helped initiate the department’s industry consortium and is working with assistant professor Diana Duran to design a new construction engineering and management program.

Sharing a home in the engineering systems and environment department enables faculty in the civil and systems engineering programs to coordinate better, Smith said.

“It creates unique opportunities to increase our student training in management, business and industry leadership alongside the engineering coursework. Combined with other UVA assets, such as the School of Data Science and UVA Engineering’s Link Lab, our collaborative cyber-physical systems research center, we’re strategically set up to prepare new generations of civil engineers who can tackle complex infrastructure projects with creative and innovative approaches.”

Since June, Duran has met with consortium representatives and subject matter experts to design the curriculum, which will be introduced over coming months in the department, as well as to students from other engineering disciplines and UVA schools. Two graduate- and undergraduate-level courses are ready for fall 2020: Heydarian will teach Management Large-Scale Construction Projects and Duran will teach Construction Scheduling. More will be added in the spring, all with in-person and online options.

Additional program components are also in progress, Duran said.

“As we move forward, we will 1) continue to recruit companies and work with members to establish scholarships and collaborative research projects; 2) identify opportunities to bring more practicing professionals into our classrooms; 3) explore how to link coursework around Grounds with the McIntire School of Commerce real estate track, the School of Architecture, the School of Data Science, and the School of Law; 4) start student chapters of the Construction Management Association of America and Associated General Contractors of America; and 5) have student teams participating in construction-related competitions,” Duran said.

“Our ultimate goal is to give students the best-possible learning experience.”