University of Minnesota senior Charles Sisterman discovered engineering well into his adulthood, roaming the cobblestone streets of Copenhagen. Cornerstones of buildings dating back centuries in the old capital city inspired his awe of the place he then called home. “I want to do something that is lasting and that contributes to society, like how these engineers, how these people did it,” he recalls thinking. “Engineering never even crossed my mind until I was living in Denmark.”
Sisterman’s epiphany led him back to school and family in the Twin Cities seven years ago—and finally last year, to the civil engineering program at the U of M. This past summer, following a tip from a bridge inspector neighbor, he landed a MnDOT internship with the Metro Bridge Inspections Unit. He was responsible for identifying, documenting, and reporting critical and non-critical bridge deficiencies.
“This internship has been very hands-on, and I have learned a tremendous amount of information on bridge deficiencies. I have really enjoyed it,” he says. “We were able to inspect a lot of the bridges that we drive [on] on a day-to-day basis. You just get to witness that immediate impact you have on the community that you wouldn’t otherwise even think about.”
Like Sisterman, more university students, adapting to ongoing pandemic conditions, found ways this past summer to gain valuable work experience in transportation-related internships with CTS partners MnDOT and Ramsey County.
“Even though we’re still in the pandemic and teleworking, students were able to gain valuable experience. We had a range of how students worked,” says MnDOT internship coordinator Denise Hals. “They were still able to do what they needed to do and learn a lot.”
This year, MnDOT hired 17 interns, rebounding from only 2 last year. Eight of the students attend the U, six from the Twin Cities campus—including Sisterman—and two from Duluth. Six other students attend Minnesota State University, Mankato, and the remaining three come from Iowa State University, the University of St. Thomas, and University of Northwestern.
Students were assigned to a variety of MnDOT offices, including bridge maintenance, asset management, traffic engineering, traffic work zones, materials, design, construction, surveys, and right-of-way. Several of the students spent a significant amount of time in the field, mostly in the Twin Cities metro area.
UMD civil engineering grad student Amanda McCann, in her second summer with MnDOT, and UMD civil engineering senior Dan LeMay teamed up with Sisterman on the MnDOT Metro Bridge Inspections Unit. Among the highlights of their internship was participating in nighttime inspections of vehicle damage on I-94 to the Lowry Hill Tunnel and the 25th Avenue South bridge.
“It’s certainly on-the-job training, and it’s stuff you likely won’t find in a textbook anywhere,” LeMay says. “I often found myself challenged by the amount of data that is collected about a bridge. But even then, it’s something you get used to and adapt to.”
U of M civil engineering senior Zoe Jeske, in her second year with MnDOT, also has been working with the MnDOT Bridge Office, primarily with the load ratings unit.
“One of my favorite things I’ve worked on this summer is a bridge by Augsburg (25th Avenue South over I-94) that was hit in May. I was able to assist with the inspection and run the load ratings for the damaged bridge,” she says. “Overall, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of good, well-rounded exposure to different things like bridge design.”
The Ramsey County All-Abilities Transportation Network hired four interns this summer, each assigned to areas within public works or community and economic development. Two of the students attend the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and the remaining two are from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and Augsburg University. For the most part, interns continued to work remotely.
Diana Flores Castillo, a senior majoring in geography at the U of M, worked with the program delivery division of Ramsey County Public Works and plans to continue there part-time during fall semester. Her job includes the use of GIS software, which she learned in school.
“I plan to work as a GIS professional within the transportation sector once I graduate next year,” she says. “This internship is solidifying my interest in what I am currently studying in school. Plus, this type of experience affirms my dedication and passion for GIS and transportation.”
Andy Gitzlaff, a senior transportation planner with Ramsey County who was involved with the intern program as a supervisor, adds that the students expand the department’s ability to dig more deeply into issues. Interns are involved in real-time issues, and their work becomes valuable for the agency and themselves.
The MnDOT internship program is in its tenth year, and the Ramsey County program is in its fourth year.