Day two allowed us a diversion from the traditional path. We had the opportunity to visit the Institute for Transportation at Iowa State University. InTrans graciously hosted us and made the visit for the students quite special. And in turn, our students made the most of the opportunity to see the inner workings of the transportation “industry” in Iowa and in a larger context.
We first met with Dr. Omar Smahdi, who was able to explain to our contingent what the objective of InTrans is and how they plan to meet it. He aptly made the complex understandable and showed the correlation between a variety of issues and components in the question of transportation. After his introduction, we moved on to meet with Neal Hawkins and Skyler in the Transportation Control Center. This room contained four large screens on which they could project the map of Iowa, varied locations with live camera feeds and the data that is necessary to evaluate the road traffic areas for improvement. We talked extensively about the V2V (Vehicle to Vehicle) future capabilities of cars and trucks, as well as the ethical questions that come into play with self-driving vehicles that Google is currently working to bring to market. The students engaged in the discussion, questioned their own beliefs and challenged each other to think about the issues from many sides.
Unfortunately, due to mechanical difficulties, the students were unable to experience the Driving Simulator. However, we had the opportunity to talk with the person who utilizes this tool for his research. From the simulator, he gathered data on driving habits and perils of driving under the influence, texting while driving, and general awareness and its challenges faced by drivers both young and old. The students asked pointed questions as many of them contemplate their own driving habits as new drivers or as not-so-distant-future motorists.
Our final session for the morning was an opportunity to hear from some Iowa State University engineering students doing work with InTrans. The cadre of four students ranged from PHD candidates (Tim and Amirah) to undergraduate Senior (Steve) and finally an undergraduate Junior (Eric). They came from all over the Midwest- from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (and a Michigan Tech engineering graduate) to Oregon, IL, as small town 2 hours northwest of Chicago. They all had interesting and diverse interests into why they wanted to be a part of the InTrans research team. Tim was able to take us through an interesting explanation of his efforts with municipalities to identify the variety of factors that play into the safety of traffic situations in various parts of their cities. Tim was very attuned to his audience by researching and incorporating into his spreadsheet calculations the three intersections in Grand Rapids, Fulton & Division, Division & Weston and 28th & Eastern. This really brought the idea of the possible research into sharp focus for the students, as these were places they could connect to their lives. Tim then walked the students through a fictitious intersection, College Dr. & Student Way, to allow the students to make choices for what elements of traffic control they wanted to bring to that location, from roundabouts to number of lanes, from median to turning lane. Once they plugged in the variables, Tim showed them through complex calculations the expected number of accidents that would occur in that intersection based on, amongst other things, history, elements and volume of traffic. This “new” intersection in Grand Rapids was predicted to have 2.8 accidents per year. The goal was obviously zero, so the exercise prompted the students to debate which selected elements were the cause of the increased volume of accidents and where they could make these adjustments. A truly engaging exercise for the students and adults, and very thoughtful of InTrans to bring the exercise so close to home while we are so far away.
After this wonderful two and a half hour experience, InTrans personnel took our group to lunch at the renowned Hickory Park. In total we had a party of fourteen at this down home, country barbeque joint. The meals were substantial, the selection varied, and the conversation stimulating. The students had the opportunity to sit amongst the students and ask further questions that would help them define in their own minds the career paths they want to pursue and whether Iowa State University was a place for them to do this.
It was a robust overview that touched on a broad spectrum of the needs and possibilities for studying transportation and what roles were needed to truly evaluate this industry. It opened the eyes of many of the students while simultaneously prompting them to internalize the aspects they had previously taken for granted in their lives.