Park Ranger April Richard's sturdy boots crunched on the gravel path as she led the tour group up a hillside to an overlook platform. Richards, the ranger at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District’s Conemaugh River Lake, welcomed a group of students and began their guided tour. She started by discussing the fundamental nature of the dam.
"You might find it interesting that it's approximately the same length as one loop around a track," Richards said.
The group of students ventured out of the campus confines at the University of Pittsburgh and into the on-the-ground world of engineering during a visit to the reservoir. As students in a hydrologic analysis and design class, they did not come to just observe the dam from the outside; they dove deep into the intricate details of dam engineering, bridging the gap between classroom theories and field experiences.
“Initially, the engineers wanted to use the landmass right there," she pointed to a ridge on the side, "We call that Bow Ridge. They thought of extending it using an earthen dam, but the soil wasn't stable enough."
This struck a chord with the students, who found the information intriguing.
"So, a concrete dam was the next logical step?" one student asked.
"Exactly," Richards said. "They found four potential locations. They discarded two because of environmental and logistical reasons. This spot," she gestured, "was chosen because of the stable rocks beneath."
Combining the structure with its geographic landscape is a testament to the rigorous planning and geological assessments that precede the construction of such vital infrastructure.
As the group moved toward the top of the dam's entrance, Richards warned the students, "If you're nervous about the heights, don't be. We had fourth graders jumping around here yesterday, testing the strength of this place."
Their professor who organized the students’ visit to the dam, Werner Loehlein, had also served as the former chief of water management for the Pittsburgh District.
"In class, we discuss reservoir sizing for flood control, among other topics,” said Loehlein. “I also introduce my students to climate variability and the evolving nature of records…and how the original projects were built with a very, very short period of record, hydrologic record. Now that we have a hundred years’ worth of record [or approaching it], you would get a different answer to size the dam or reservoir.”
The Conemaugh River Dam, approximately 40 miles east from the university’s main campus, stands as a marvel of modern engineering. While it might appear as a simple concrete wall to an untrained eye, these students approached it with an academic slant.
Their instructor brought them on site to expose them to environmental and engineering details that ‘traditional textbooks’ might overlook. Students learned about the dam’s role in controlling sedimentation, its impact on acid mine drainage and watershed health and the evolving dynamics resulting from climate variability.
Among the students was Jess Chamberlin, who appreciated the hands-on experience.
"Being here, almost in the field and seeing the dam we're studying around has been enlightening," Chamberlin said.
Her sentiment was echoed by many of her peers, who felt that class excursions provided a richer understanding of their studies.
"While Professor Loehlein emphasizes that textbooks provide data on dam pressure and capacity, being on-site offers a different perspective," said Ben Johnson, another student.
As the group navigated the dam, Loehlein infused the tour with insights from his extensive water resource management experience.
"From an engineering perspective, the class, Hydrologic Analysis and Design, we have a focus in our class of dams, particularly large dams, how they're sized and what the current and future needs are in terms of how they are to be operated, also learning the features,” said Loehlein. “It's one thing to talk about bases or gates or things like that in class, but to see it and feel it makes more of an impression.”
University of Pittsburgh student George Strisch weighed in on the multifaceted nature of dam engineering.
"This summer, I was lucky enough to go to the Hoover Dam, which was interesting and we were able to take a tour of it, which was cool but this [Conemaugh Dam] was easily on par with that,” Stirsch said, shedding light on the complex decision-making process involved. “The competing values in engineering...it's interesting to observe how it plays out in real life and how those decisions are made.”
Loehlein's dedication to advancing engineering education, combined with his active participation in professional groups, like the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Society of American Military Engineers, is evident in the number of his past students who went on to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
After several hours, the students concluded the tour with a group photo with a view of the dam in the background, soaking in the culmination of years of engineering prowess, planning and dedicated work.
As the students prepared to return to the university, there was a palpable buzz among them. They exchanged notes, discussed observations, and contemplated their imminent graduation and future endeavors in the engineering field. The visit had left an impression on them, thanks to Loehlein's commitment to experiential learning.
"It was a 'dam' good day," Strisch said.