University of Pittsburgh

commons room

Community Engineering

Written by Lauren Mylo

During their lab period, four Pitt engineering students hop off the 84A bus near an overlook with a panoramic view of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny River, nearby hills, and span of bridges. Chatting, the freshmen walk along a stretch of sidewalk to their starting point. Then they pull out notepads, pencils, and a distance wheel and get to work.

Student Kristin Gottron pushes the distance wheel—a device that measures how far she travels—while she strolls down a block of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Her teammates walk behind her, recording the distance and snapping digital pictures. The team is mapping a walking trail that will connect the neighborhood’s planned and existing green spaces. Their work is part of a collaboration between the community’s Hill House Association and Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering.

When Gottron reaches a difficult patch without a sidewalk, she pushes the wheel through weeds and grass. Then she backtracks and rolls it over the terrain again, repeating the process until she gets an accurate measurement. Her teammates take notes about the condition of the overgrown path. The elderly or people with disabilities might use the route, and they’ll need to know what they’ll be up against. Plus, the budding engineers will later review their notes and discuss alternative routes they could develop.

The team is enrolled in Engineering Applications for Society, a course taught by Laura Lund, an adjunct professor and director of service learning for Pitt’s Freshman Engineering Program. She pairs groups of motivated freshmen with local nonprofit organizations that need engineering help. Not only does her course benefit nonprofits, it gives students a rare chance to practice real-world engineering at the start of their college careers. Since the course’s inception three years ago, students have conducted geomorphic-mapping and soil-sampling studies of Schenley Park, figured out the safest and most efficient ways to load patients with artificial-heart equipment onto hospital elevators, and calculated how a Pittsburgh bike trail could be lengthened despite urban obstacles, among other projects.

As Gottron and her teammates developed the Hill District trail throughout the semester, they trekked through weeds, mud, and even snow. Another group also canvassed the streets to create special walking routes throughout the neighborhood—two easy, four moderate, and two strenuous. Since then, the Hill House Association has been using maps from both groups to encourage residents to exercise, connect businesses with consumers, and highlight cultural, historic, and scenic attractions, such as the home of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author and playwright August Wilson.

On the afternoon Gottron pushed through the weeds, she and her fellow students took a short break to overlook the city from a Hill District perch. While the quartet conversed about roommate issues and dining-hall food, they also gazed across the city and were glad that their work might soon lead others to discover new views, too.