Innovating with Technology and Pedagogy

Michael Levin and Raphael Stern usually teach advanced classes on transportation theory. Now they have teamed up to share their transportation passion with a broad group of first-year students.

In the spring of 2024, Stern and Levin will launch CEGE 1201 Emerging Technologies in Transportation: Automated and Electric Vehicles.

Prof. Stern and I wanted to teach a course on automated vehicles (AVs); yet we felt it was premature as a core class given the still-emerging technology,” said Michael Levin. “But the topic works well for an introductory class for first year students. It allows us to draw on a hot topic that is interesting to students and to expose students to issues and methods in transportation engineering with an automation/electrification lens.”

CEGE magazine got a chance to ask Levin and Stern about this new class.

CEGE   What inspired you to develop this course (CEGE 1201)?

RS       There are really exciting things happening in transportation engineering now. Things like electrification and automation that could change how we think about transportation. In addition, everyone uses our transportation system from a very young age, even if they just walk on sidewalks or ride bikes and cross the highways. Everyone has some understanding of our transportation system. 

ML      Most cars now have some aspect of automation, like lane keeping or cruise control. Students might drive an EV or drive next to an EV. 

RS       Because this class is available to students who are not in the College of Science and Engineering, this is a fun opportunity to share our perspective and passion for transportation with students more broadly. 

CEGE   How do you approach teaching?

RS       For me, it depends on the course and what I want students to get out of it. If the students are already excited about transportation, then it is about how much cool stuff I can show them. In this class where not everyone will be excited about transportation, one goal is to make sure they learn the basics, but I also want to show them the value of transportation engineering and maybe even recruit them. Slightly different game, so to speak. I think I am reasonably successful!

ML      Teaching to students with no technical background in the subject will be different. It can be a challenge to teach things I learned long ago, but it is also an opportunity to think/talk about the basic tools and encourage students to use mathematical thinking. I have been using inquiry-based learning (IBL) in my classes. I use short lectures with opportunities for students to practice the concepts, rather than just telling them.  IBL helps students develop their thinking skills. 

We give students challenging problems that do not have a clear solution but do have some structure. We ask students to try to find the best solution they can. The class will be hands-on, working on relevant problems. We walk around and talk with students as they work on a problem, so we can see where they are and what they understand.      

RS       My general philosophy is that civil engineering, and transportation engineering in particular, is changing. Engineers often define themselves in terms of the types of problems they solve; civil engineers solve big scale, societal-level problems. The tools we traditionally use come from physics and from math. Now, there are tools from computation and data science. Civil engineers have embraced these tools for decades. However, a risk right now is that if civil engineers do not embrace and own these tools, the problems we have traditionally solved may be taken over by computer science. Computer scientists can solve some problems that depend on a simple algorithm, the best place to put a road, for example. However, the domain knowledge, engineering thinking, is still important. It is important to ensure that these students, who will be in charge of our civil infrastructure, are literate with these new tools. I try to bring that, to incorporate computational literacy into every class.

CEGE   How do you integrate a transportation system perspective into the course?

RS       A system has many components working together; a systems perspective looks at these systems as a whole. Individual actions do change the system. For example, choices about how someone travels, how a student gets to class, will influence the system. We think about individual choices within a system. The system determines the choices available, but the choices an individual makes also impact the system. For example, if you don’t have a bus, you have to take a car or bike. If you do not take a bus, that influences congestion at the system level. 

ML      We will look at various aspects of the transportation system: cars, roads, materials, systems of traffic signals, speed, the road network – where roads go, etc. We will talk about automated vehicles and how they affect these system elements.

Course Description

CEGE 1201 Emerging Technologies in Transportation: Automated and Electric Vehicles 

Emerging battery and computer technologies are revolutionizing our daily transportation. Vehicle automation has the potential to reduce congestion, create new methods of traffic control, and change our travel patterns. 29% of US greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and electric vehicles could help reduce the environmental impacts. This course presents an introductory exploration into automated and electric vehicle technologies from a transportation systems perspective. As you study emerging technologies, you will also get exposed to the engineering methods used to design current transportation systems. The course is next offered in spring 2024. It consists of a lecture and a lab. The class meets UMN liberal arts requirements for the areas of Technology & Society and Mathematical Thinking.