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Next-gen engineers tackle real-world construction project

CU Boulder seniors pass the test — and their class — by designing their own version of Denver Water’s new Hillcrest site.

Dozens of engineering students from the University of Colorado Boulder are celebrating the end of the school year with a newfound appreciation for water.

The students spent their spring semester designing water storage tanks in partnership with Denver Water.

“This was a great way for us to help these budding engineers learn about the industry,” said Doug Raitt, Denver Water engineering project manager.

To earn their engineering degrees, the students formed teams to create their own designs for Denver Water’s new Hillcrest facility.

CU students were challenged to design their own version of Denver Water's new Hillcrest water storage facility in south Denver.

Denver Water is replacing two 15-million-gallon water storage tanks at Hillcrest with three new ones to increase capacity and improve reliability.

“We don’t give them the plans, but we give them a path to find solutions so they can create their own designs,” said Matt Morris, CU Boulder senior engineering instructor. “They have to work through real problems, bring together data and work together as a team.”

During a cold and blustery January visit to the Hillcrest facility, the students met with Denver Water engineers and the builders from MWH Constructors — the engineering and construction firm building the actual storage tanks for Denver Water.

Students toured the Hillcrest site and met with MWH engineers who are building the new water storage tanks.

“The visit to Hillcrest was very helpful,” said Nathan Klass, CU Boulder student. “We’ve been to job sites before, but actually gathering information and putting it into our drawings and redesigning it was something we had never experienced before.”

Throughout the semester, the students learned about foundations, structures, storage capacity, environmental impacts, project management and safety.

“This is a great opportunity for us,” said Colter Ritsch, a CU Boulder senior. “I’m confident that with hard work, we’ll be able to come up with a great plan.”

Raitt worked with students throughout the semester and gave several presentations on the CU Boulder campus.

Doug Raitt, engineering manager for construction at Denver Water, provides information to students during a lecture at the CU Boulder campus.

“This is not an easy exercise,” Raitt said. “They’re going to be challenged, they’re going to be up late, there’s going to be a lot of hours to get to the finish line, but they’ll find it immensely rewarding.”

Morris said the class is tough but forces students to work with each other like they would in the real world.

“During the semester the students are working and learning a lot,” Morris said. “But, consistently once they enter the working world, we hear from students who call and email saying this was the real deal and they appreciate it.”

Students presented their designs to the class and a group of four judges in early May.

Students presented their water storage tank designs in front of their peers and four judges in early May.

“I was impressed with what they came up with,” Raitt said. “Some groups came up with very similar designs to what we’re actually building.”

The award for best project went to a team that called themselves DG Engineering.

“This was fun and it was real-world experience,” said Jordan Brennise, who was on the winning team. “Usually these projects are pretty simple, but this was complicated even for regular engineers.”

Fellow team member Lea Connors agreed. “It was great working on a real project. The entire process makes me feel a lot more confident about getting into this field.”

The judges presented students from DG Engineering with the award for best design.

“Once they enter the workforce, they shouldn’t have any trouble finding jobs,” Morris said. “Our nation’s infrastructure is aging, so these young civil engineers have a promising future ahead of them.”

“This project was a way for us at Denver Water to pay it forward and pass on our knowledge to the next generation of engineers,” Raitt said. “We wish them well and hope the students will take their talents to help communities across the country.”