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Prepping next-gen engineers for careers beyond the classroom

CU Boulder students present their take on a major Denver Water project.

As the fall semester starts at the University of Colorado Boulder, the school’s civil engineering senior students may be eyeballing one of the last classes of their undergraduate career: their capstone design project.

The capstone class is a spring rite of passage for soon-to-graduate civil engineering students at the university's College of Engineering and Applied Science, a rite Denver Water and its partners have been honored to be a part of in the last few years.

“It’s so fulfilling to see young engineering professionals learn about our business, about the delivery of water, and watch them become more prepared for the real world. What they learn benefits Denver Water and the engineering profession, and it’s so satisfying to watch it happen,” said Doug Raitt, a Denver Water engineering construction manager who’s worked closely with the capstone class’s instructor, Matt Morris.

Two years ago, in 2017, the class project focused on Denver Water’s overhaul of the Hillcrest site in southeast Denver, where two massive, 15-million-gallon water storage tanks are being removed and replaced with three 15-million-gallon tanks. In 2018, the class project revolved around Denver Water’s planned expansion of Gross Reservoir about 12 miles southwest of the CU Boulder campus.

In the spring of 2019, a class of 70 seniors tackled one of the most complicated capstone design projects so far: the building that will house the filter system for Denver Water’s long-planned, state-of-the-art Northwater Treatment Plant north of Golden along Highway 93. Construction at the site started in fall 2018 and is expected to be finished in 2024.

The plant is part of a $600 million project to upgrade to Denver Water's northern treatment system, a project that also includes a new 8.5-mile pipeline and modifications to Moffat Treatment Plant, which opened in the 1930s.

Engineering students from the University of Colorado Boulder visit the site where Denver Water’s new state-of-the-art Northwater Treatment Plant will be built north of Golden. Photo credit: Denver Water.


“We gave them a heck of a challenge, and that’s the idea, to get them ready for the real world,” Morris said, declining to tip his hand by sharing what future students may encounter as their capstone project.

As part of the capstone design class, students are put into groups, forcing them to rely on each other and forge a team capable of creating a design proposal and presenting that proposal to a panel of judges who determine which team made the best presentation.

In the business world, the winning team would start negotiating a contract with the client.

In the class, the presentations took place a few days before CU’s spring graduation ceremonies.

Presentation day for students in the spring 2019 civil engineering capstone class at the University of Colorado Boulder. Photo credit: Denver Water.


The capstone class is typically the first time the students need to bring years of learning to bear on a single project while relying on their team members’ skills throughout the semester, Morris said.

“The process they went through during the capstone semester is very similar to what owners and engineering consultants go through, with the client having an idea for a facility and laying out what’s needed, and then having different consulting teams develop proposals and compete for the project,” Raitt said.

The teamwork required during the class, “mirrors what we do on a daily basis at Denver Water, from engineering to all the other departments — we have to work together to keep the water flowing to the taps,” Raitt said.

This year’s capstone class got its first good look at the site of Denver Water’s new water treatment plant during a chilly-but-sunny January day, where they heard more about the project from representatives of Kiewit, the construction company in charge of building the plant.

Throughout the winter and early spring, representatives from Jacobs, the company that’s managing the development of the plant’s design, also presented details of the project to the students.

Then, at the end of April, the students strode to the front of the classroom, took a deep breath and launched into an eight-minute presentation before a panel of judges that included faculty members, Raitt and Pete McCormick, Denver Water’s project manager in charge of the treatment plant.

Members of the judging panel for the capstone class presentations included Pete McCormick, Denver Water’s project manager for the Northwater Treatment Plant, and Doug Raitt, an engineering construction manager with Denver Water. Photo credit: Denver Water.


For each of the 11 groups, the presentations capped years of classes, months of team meetings and many late nights. The students presented proposed timelines for constructing the project, cost estimates and answered questions.

“I feel so relieved I can’t even begin to tell you,” Aryn Nuffer said after the presentations were finished.

Nuffer, the project manager for her team, said one of the biggest lessons she took from the class was “learning to rely on the strengths of other people. Everyone brought a different engineering strength and discipline to the design.”

Fellow student Garrett Neustrom said the class “was hard, but we were prepared, like professor Morris had said we’d be. It was a great learning opportunity and I think working in teams, with all the different disciplines, is going to be a lot like working on the job in the future.”

The months of work the students put in showed clearly in their presentations, said Denver Water’s McCormick.

Members of the Viridian team, deemed the winner of the spring 2019 capstone class for civil engineering students at the University of Colorado Boulder, pose for a picture with Doug Raitt, left, a Denver Water engineering construction manager. Photo credit: Denver Water.


“These 11 groups put together very detailed project plans for a very complicated project. Many elements of the presentations the groups gave were similar to what our teams at Denver Water and our contractors will be doing during the construction of the plant. You could tell the students really paid attention during the semester,” he said.

Not only did the students learn about teamwork and what’s involved in creating a winning presentation, but they learned more about what it takes to deliver a clean, safe and reliable water supply.

Nuffer recalled the many late night she and her team spent learning about filtration devices and pipe network designs.

“I have so much appreciation for the designers who put everything together and the construction team that builds it. It’s not as simple as turning on the tap and voilà, the water’s just there,” she said.

“I went from basically no understanding to understanding all the mechanics that go into a water treatment plant,” said Michael Walmsley, the project manager for his team, Viridian, which was deemed the winning team for the semester.

“It definitely feels good to win,” Walmsley said, admitting that he has a competitive streak. “It’s a nice icing on top of the cake.”