Addressing America’s Failing Infrastructure through Education

Transportation infrastructure. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)
Transportation infrastructure. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

Poor or mediocre at best – this is how America’s infrastructure has been classified in the most recent Infrastructure Report Card by the American Society of Engineers. The country’s cumulative infrastructure GPA is a D+.

Two researchers from UConn’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering are seeking solutions to address the serious systemic problems behind our nation’s failing infrastructure.

Associate professors Tim Vadas and Arash Zaghi have received a $746,250 GAANN (Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need) grant from the US Department of Education to train a group of civil engineering Ph.D. candidates to apply their knowledge and develop novel solutions for America’s crumbling transportation, water, and power infrastructure.

The structural weaknesses in these areas leave them vulnerable to terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and extreme weather. People across the nation are still relying on power lines and bridges that were built in the middle of the last century and have already exceeded their 50-year life expectancy. Highways and local roads are congested and filled with pot holes and fractures. The water we drink flows through leaky pipes built nearly 100 years ago and when they break, we lose more than two trillion gallons of safe drinking water every year.

It will cost trillions to make all the upgrades our infrastructure desperately needs, says Vadas. The UConn team feel that the emerging engineers mentored through the program are well suited to come up with ways to improve and redesign infrastructure and make these systems more resilient going forward.

“The GAANN Program will provide us an unprecedented opportunity to train the next generation of civil engineers to meet the need of repairing and maintaining the aging national infrastructure,” says Vadas.

It is crucial to find a way to make these much-needed improvements as our infrastructure systems are increasingly interrelated, says Vadas. When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last fall, it cut power in some areas on the island for nearly a year. This impacted water and waste systems creating additional hazards. The lack of cellular service further hindered relief efforts, magnifying and prolonging the scope of the catastrophe.

GAANN fellows will work on developing new technologies that can improve the fundamental design of infrastructure components. They will look at sensors which can be used on bridges and other systems to collect data and help decision-makers make more informed choices about what projects to prioritize and how to best allocate resources for those projects.

“By approaching engineering problems from a multidisciplinary and holistic perspective, the next generation of civil engineers will be better able to accurately and comprehensively identify vulnerabilities and design effective mitigation strategies to enhance the resilience and security of these systems,” Zaghi says.

Vadas received his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 2008. He began teaching at UConn in 2010.  His research focuses include stormwater treatment and management, contaminant fate in the environment, and contaminant issues in water reuse.

Zaghi received a Ph.D. in 2009 from the University of Nevada, Reno and started at UConn in 2011.  His research is focused on innovative repairs for aging bridges, multi-hazard mitigation, and nurturing creativity in engineering education.

The GAANN Program provides the opportunity to work on projects in areas of national need to high-achieving graduate students in financial need who plan to pursue the highest degree available in their field.

This grant is USDE Grant No. P200A180064.

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