Aug. 4, 2021
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STEM curriculum: Who teaches the teachers?

Photo: A group of people in safety vests listening to a MnDOT employee speaking near a work site

Makala Simon, project engineer from District 4, speaks to Fargo-area middle and high school STEM teachers and NDSU professors July 19 during a tour of the Hwy 87 construction project near Frazee. MnDOT staff from Environmental Stewardship Office and District 4 teamed up with the National Science Foundation and North Dakota State University as part of the NSF’s six-week Research Experiences for Teachers program. Photo by Emma Olson

By Marcia Lochner, STEM Education and Outreach

Have you ever helped a student with an assignment and wondered how the curriculum was developed or how their teacher acquired the knowledge to teach it?

MnDOT staff from the Office of Environmental Stewardship and District 4 recently supported Fargo-area Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics teachers with both by giving them a construction project tour as part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Teachers program at North Dakota State University.

Makala Simon, project engineer from District 4, and Dwayne Stenlund, natural resources program coordinator and certified professional in Erosion and Sediment Control from the Environmental Stewardship office, led a tour and overview of District 4’s Hwy 87 construction project near Frazee on July 19.
Through this live, hands-on experience, STEM teachers learned about civil engineering, sustainability and situational awareness.

Improving the preparedness of local middle and high school secondary education teachers allows them to feel more comfortable presenting authentic STEM topics in their classrooms and curriculum.

“The lessons created from the experiences these teachers have as part of the program will provide context to help students better engage in the material and find their passion in STEM, especially civil engineering,” said Beena Ajmera, assistant professor, Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at North Dakota State University. “Tours like the one provided by MnDOT bring classroom lessons to life, link their studies together to real world application and improve educational experiences.”

Partnerships like these that both increase student awareness of STEM careers and thoroughly prepare teachers to teach about them are crucial to help MnDOT recruit talented and qualified staff, especially during the current staffing shortage in civil engineering and other transportation- related positions.

“It takes many people with multiple skills and vast knowledge to design and implement existing and emerging ideas into practice along with a willingness to prepare for resiliency and sustainability. While many STEM programs exist for students, little has been done to prepare the teachers for the many options to engage students in the hundreds of design to implementation items that go into every project through the construction phase,” Stenlund said. “Programs like this RET will help pave the path for future experiences to expand teachers’ knowledge and curriculum offerings.”

Learn more about the Research Experience for Teachers Program at NDSU



Pine River project replaces 78-year-old bridge in District 3

By Margie Nelson, District 1 Public Affairs

Photo: a bridge under construction

Crews set bridge beams and worked on the Hwy 84 Pine River bridge’s concrete decking during the early part of July. This new bridge, located slightly south of the 78-year-old bridge it is replacing, should be finished by Labor Day. Photo by MnDOT staff

Crews are about halfway finished with a new bridge on Hwy 84 in the District 3 city of Pine River.

The 220-foot structure will replace a 78-year-old bridge. This new, three-span bridge is wider and will improve pedestrian access, with sidewalks on both sides and shoulders to accommodate bicyclists.

The $2.8 million project is the latest manmade item built on the site. It joins a 112-year-old dam, pump house and a beach area built as a WPA project in 1937. Eventually, the dam will be replaced with rock riffle, a shallow area designed the mimic the natural water flow over rocks.

Building a new bridge next to a functional dam posed several challenges. Excavation and pile driving next to the existing structure created concerns, and crews also removed portions of the existing structure to make room for some of the components of the new bridge. An onsite geotechnical engineer monitored conditions during some of these activities.

“Luckily, we have been able to avoid any major hold ups and were able to end the geotechnical monitoring early, which saved us some money,” said Nathan Walton, project engineer. “The construction of the rock riffle by the city will have many challenges of its own while working around the finished bridge. Feedback has been mostly positive, as we have stayed on schedule. The public realizes the need for upgrades in infrastructure, as well as the improvements to the city park and fish spawning habitat that will come with completion of the city project.”

Walton estimated that approximately 3,400 vehicles will travel on the new bridge each day. Final bridge work should finish the week before Labor Day, with landscaping being touched up in the spring.



Annual sustainability report documents success, challenges

MnDOT recently released its fifth-annual “Sustainability and Public Health Report” documenting progress the agency has made toward its sustainability and climate goals.

The report is based on data through 2020. This latest report includes additional public health and transportation resilience measures.

State statute directs MnDOT to reduce carbon pollution from transportation, prioritize walking, bicycling, transit and meet the energy and environmental goals of the state. Progress MnDOT has achieved since 2019 in this area includes:

  • Reduced emissions from MnDOT facilities by 39 percent (goal was 30 percent reduction)
  • Reduced water use at MnDOT by 27 percent (goal was 15 percent reduction)
  • Converting nearly all highway lighting to LED (97 percent of goal reached)

It is unlikely that the agency will sustain the 2020 facility energy and water use levels as more staff return to work, noted Siri Simons, sustainability coordinator. However, the MnDOT teleworking committee is working to support opportunities that can help to maintain a lower energy intensity levels and efficient water use, she said.

The report noted several areas where improvement is needed:

  • MnDOT is not on track to meet emission reduction goals for the transportation sector (goal is 30 percent by 2025).
  • The agency needs to include more transportation options on its projects and achieve the agency’s goal to meet 90 percent of needs for bicycling (currently at 62 percent).
  • Minnesota is seeing a rising trend of more non-motorized crashes resulting in fatal and serious injuries. This is similar to a rising national trend. Nationwide, the number of people struck and killed by drivers while walking increased 45 percent between 2010-2019, with the four most recent years recorded as the most deadly for pedestrians.

  “These reports are important because they provide valuable information about our strategic sustainability and public health goals, how we’re measuring progress, what we’ve accomplished so far, and what comes next,” Simons said. “They provide an opportunity to highlight the impressive work that our staff are leading, as well as where more work is needed.”



New winter maintenance report highlights 2020-21 season

By Anne Meyer

Photo: two MnDOT employees, masked, near a snowplow during training

Snowplow operator training sessions with COVID protocols were held October 2020 at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in St. Paul. Photo by Rich Kemp

In terms of snow and ice totals, the winter of 2020-21 was an average year in Minnesota.

But the daily work life of snowplow operators was much different in terms of safety operations, and MnDOT crews rose to the challenge. Those changes are highlighted in the new winter maintenance report, which also breaks down fiscal year costs, winter severity, material usage and more.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, new cleaning protocols, daily health screenings, changes to safety practices, mask-wearing and other safety procedures were put into place during the winter season to help get the job done and keep employees safe.

“We looked at every aspect of our snow and ice operations to help keep our employees safe at work and all Minnesotans safe on the roads,” said Steve Lund, state maintenance engineer. “I’m grateful to all of our tireless employees for rising to the challenges of the past year, proving that we can adjust to drastic changes and still succeed.” 

MnDOT spent $116 million statewide, with crews working more than 99,000 hours of overtime during the 2020-21 winter season. Costs are separated by each district in the report.

The various winter events created a statewide Winter Severity Index score of 86, the lowest index score in the past five years. The Winter Severity Index compares nine factors that affect snow and ice removal, including temperature, hours of snowfall, blowing snow and precipitation type.

With fewer and less severe winter events, snowplow drivers put down less rock salt and sand during the 2020-21 winter season compared to previous years. Crews also exceeded bare lane target goals for all road classifications, achieving bare lane driving conditions 87 percent of the time after a snow event.

See the full 2020-21 winter maintenance report and previous reports on the maintenance website.



Join Plowy McPlowFace at MnDOT’s State Fair booth

Photo: a plow outside of MnDOT's State Fair booth in 2006

#TBT The last time MnDOT hosted an outdoors exhibit at the State Fair was in 2006, shown here at its location on Judson Avenue. This year, MnDOT returns to the great outdoors at a new location on Cosgrove Street across from the Education Building. The exhibit will feature, among other things, Metro District’s recently named towplow, Plowy McPlowFace. MnDOT file photo

There are still opportunities for employees eager to hand out state highway maps and share their transportation expertise with visitors to MnDOT’s exhibit at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair. The fair runs Aug. 26 through Labor Day.

Each volunteer shift is four hours long (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; 1 to 5 p.m.; 5 to 9 p.m.), with workers expected to arrive 15 minutes before their shift. Prior to the start of the fair, staff will receive training, as well as a MnDOT T-shirt and ticket into the fairgrounds. Workers are responsible for their own transportation to the fair and parking costs.

If you are interested in volunteering, get your supervisor’s approval first and then fill out this form (access code: MNStateFair21) to select a time slot. Employees must arrange their schedules in advance with their supervisors to accommodate any time outside their normal working hours.

MnDOT’s outdoor spot, which features Plowy McPlowFace, a Metro District towplow, is located on the east end of the fairgrounds on Cosgrove Street, directly across from the Education Building.

More information is available at the Working at the Fair iHUB site.



Omnibus survey shows COVID-19 impacts on travel, increased trust in MnDOT

By Joseph Palmersheim

Results from a recent MnDOT survey show that more than one-fifth of Minnesotans travelled less frequently during the past year.

These results and others were gleaned from a “mini” omnibus survey of more than 1,400 residents.
Omnibus surveys, which are collections of questions covering different topics, typically happen every two years. This most recent survey, conducted online during on an “off year,” was scaled down in size and included COVID-related questions.

Key takeaways include:

  • COVID-19 had a substantial impact on the frequency of travel, with one-fifth or more decreasing their time in vehicles, flying and using buses/trains. One-fifth or more relied more on telecommuting and walking/wheeling.
  • Overall, most Minnesotans did not feel their perception of MnDOT changed due to COVID-19, but for those whose perceptions did change, it was mainly positive or neutral. There was a slight increase in bicycling as well.
  • The level of trust in MnDOT to do what is right increased in the metro (72 percent to 77 percent) and greater in Minnesota (73 percent to 79 percent).
  • Public confidence in MnDOT’s ability to communicate accurate information about plans and projects increased by nearly 20 percent over the last two years. In 2019, the public’s confidence in the agency’s ability to communicate was at 64 percent statewide. In 2021, that number climbed to 82 percent statewide. More than two-thirds of Minnesotans agreed the agency’s communications were reliable, which could be driven by a number of things, including the pandemic.
  • Results from the survey are generally more positive for older, white Minnesotans with college degrees and moderate-to high incomes. This points to how important it is that MnDOT continue to reach and engage with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) populations and those who are younger and without college degrees in our transportation planning and decision-making processes, said Renee Raduenz, Public Engagement deputy director.

MnDOT did its first omnibus survey in 1988. Survey data can show how different topics and trends change over time. The survey asks a core group of questions that include:

  • Overall satisfaction and trust
  • Needs/priorities and funding
  • Confidence in building and maintaining roads and bridges
  • Quality and maintenance, communications, public engagement, bicycling and walking

The survey results help MnDOT leadership, modal offices, districts, and others better understand how Minnesotans feel about MnDOT and its performance.

“We can capture a snapshot and review how trends change over time,” Raduenz said. “Results from the omnibus surveys are generally very favorable. However, if results start trending in the opposite direction, it would give MnDOT leadership reason to pause and consider what could be potentially causing the change in public perception.”

Market research staff are currently in the process of sharing survey results with MnDOT stakeholders. The next full omnibus survey launches in winter 2022.

Contact Renee Raduenz to see the report or a schedule presentation for your office/district.



MnDOT employees pass knowledge to next generation of workers

By Joseph Palmersheim

There’s a certain joy in seeing the flicker of comprehension in the eyes of a learner.

Photo: Nick Ollrich

Nick Ollrich. Submitted photo

Nick Ollrich, an assistant traffic engineer in District 7, knows this feeling well. He’s taught several physics- and engineering-related courses at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato for the past nine years.
“The experience of seeing a student really grasp a concept, seeing the lightbulb light up, is quite gratifying,” he said. “Teaching is a great way to contribute to the next generation of engineers and is a rewarding experience.”

Ollrich said teaching and engineering “really complement each other.”

“Engineering benefits my teaching work by allowing me to bring professional experience into the classroom,” he said. “Teaching benefits my engineering work by improving my communication skills, ability to explain complex ideas, and other soft skills.”

Ollrich isn’t alone in this experience at MnDOT.

While HR doesn’t keep track of the number of employees who teach, at least 38 employees have served as faculty in MnSCU schools. Here are some of their stories.

Jim Cownie shares practical legal skills with future lawyers

Photo: Jim Cownie

Jim Cownie. Submitted photo

Jim Cownie, deputy chief counsel, never pictured himself returning to law school after getting his diploma. But return he did, serving as an adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School for five years (2016-2021), where he taught a contract-drafting seminar for second- and third-year law students.

“It was sort of a fluke,” Cownie said. “I just happened to have a conversation with a law school faculty member who told me the law school was really interested in getting practicing lawyers to teach some practical skills classes. It seemed like an interesting challenge, and a way to give back to my alma mater, so I decided to give it a whirl.”

Taking 30 years of legal practice and breaking it down in a way that would make sense to students was an interesting intellectual challenge, he said. Doing the research and class preparation also caused him to challenge some of his assumptions and see areas where “perhaps my thinking was a little outdated.”

“It’s been a fun experience,” he said. “The students are very smart and very engaged, and I think they enjoy getting the perspective of practicing attorneys. Teaching really helped me hone my presenting skills. It’s a bit of a daunting task to stand up in front of a group of law students for two hours each week and to keep the subject matter fresh and interesting. It also made me feel very good about the future of the profession.”

While he’s currently out of the classroom, Cownie doesn’t rule out a return in the future.

“For those of us who have been in a profession or occupation or long time, I think we have a duty to help develop those who are coming up behind us,” he said.

Bryan Christensen brings multiple areas of expertise to students

Photo: Bryan Christensen

Bryan Christensen. Submitted photo

Teaching is a multifaceted affair for District 4’s Bryan Christensen. The public engagement coordinator not only teaches several online courses for the University of Minnesota-Crookston (Principles of Marketing, Principals of Management, and Business Ethics), he also teaches for the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative (MnFIRE Awareness Training, cardiac training, emotional wellness training and cancer training).

Christensen’s teaching experience goes back to high school, when he taught IT classes for Detroit Lakes Community Education. His adjunct work at Crookston started four years ago, and his fire courses started nearly three years ago.

“What I’ve learned is that you do not have to know everything,” he said. “Your goal is to get people to the appropriate resources, mentoring and coaching. I’ve learned how to deal with complex requests and accommodations from students and how to remain firm, fair and consistent. It is exciting to see the growth of your students as they progress through the program.”

When he’s not at MnDOT or teaching, Christensen serves as fire chief for the Sugar Bush-Strawberry Lakes Volunteer Fire Department, and is also a firefighter for the Callaway Volunteer Fire Department.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher uses experience to teach negotiation skills

photo: Margaret Anderson Kelliher

Margaret Anderson Kelliher. File photo

Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher teaches at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School. She developed a course called “Managing Conflict: Negotiation,” and also taught policy implementation.

“My interest in teaching came from when I was in the Legislature,” she said. “I realized most decision makers do not have formal negotiation theory or training, and I thought I should learn all I could in my graduate studies to be able to understand and help Minnesotans do better through negotiation.”

Anderson Kelliher said her own growth comes from academic material and research related to negotiation - and also from the students she teaches. She learns what their challenges are and what challenges they face in their work life, which pushes her to make sure the course is keeping up with the current public policy environments, she said.

Teaching also provides opportunities to create workshops for associations and leaders. One highlight was interviewing former Secretary of State Madeline Albright for the Humphrey School.

At the end of the day, teaching is “beyond what I thought it would be,” she said.

“Maybe because I was not sure if I could do it or maybe because it stretches my brain in new ways, but I love it,” Anderson Kelliher said. “I have taught while being a legislator, Speaker of the House, leader of a business association and now as commissioner. It’s not exactly a light schedule, but I still find teaching so worthwhile.”

Teaching may have helped Anderson Kelliher chart her eventual course to the agency. Instructing graduate students and meeting MnDOT staff members in her classes made Anderson Kelliher think that if she came back to public service, she would want to serve at MnDOT.

“These students were so innovative, creative and wanted to be the best public servants,” she said. “So you could say my teaching lead me to MnDOT.”

Part two of this story will conclude in the Aug. 18 edition of Newsline.



On the Job: Mark Schreyer helps keep District 1 stocked, supplied

By Joseph Palmersheim

Photo: Mark Schreyer

Mark Schreyer. Submitted photo

If you need something in District 1, be it salt or hand sanitizer, Mark Schreyer and his team probably know how to get it.

Schreyer, transportation maintenance supervisor for District 1’s Duluth and Virginia headquarters, oversees the Inventory Centers with a staff of six employees (five transportation maintenance technicians and one buyer).

He initially started as a MnDOT automotive parts technician in 1999 (having worked at a car dealership since 1978, working his way up to parts manager) before moving into a buyer role at the agency.

What do you do in your current role at MnDOT?
Using my local purchasing authority, I provide planning and management of financial purchases and inventory activities to ensure the district can get important work done. I also create, post and award Sourcing Events using our state SWIFT system for any purchases over $10,000. Since taking this position, my time is split between teleworking (since COVID-19) two days a week, two days in Duluth and one day in Virginia.

How far in advance of a major project do things need to be ordered?
Of course each situation is different, but they range from a couple days to maybe a month or more out.

What types of items do you have to find on a regular basis?
Each day brings new challenges for items to search for. Other than the items we stock in our Inventory Centers, the larger purchases are salt, sand and cutting edges to be used to keep our state highways clear and safe during the winter season.

How has the past year affected the procurement process?
With the virus being a worldwide pandemic, many of our cleaning supplies and safety items (masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes and cleaners) were an issue to procure and have on-hand to keep our employees safer.

When things are delivered, where do they end up? Is it a ‘just-in-time’ type of thing or do we have storage spaces?
Many of the items we purchase are needed for vehicle repairs in our Equipment Services repair shops. In the winter season, we need to find these parts ASAP to get these trucks back on the road. We use just-in-time ordering for many of our parts vendors. We also have inventory in both of our Inventory Centers for the faster-moving items, like rest area and Adopt A Highway supplies, vehicle repair parts and many other stock items.

What do you enjoy about your job?
I have a great team that makes my job easier and a pleasure to come to work each day. I had a former customer at the dealership tell me years ago that, “When it stops being fun, find something else to do.” I’m still here!

Do you or a co-worker have an interesting job to share with readers? Send us your ideas, and we’ll contact you for more information.

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