Experiential Education for the Next Generation

By Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

In the early 1990s, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) established the goals of diversifying its workforce and reaching more underrepresented groups of students. FHWA sought to provide as many as possible with opportunities to expand their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) knowledge and to encourage them to pursue transportation studies and careers. The FHWA then created the National Summer Transportation Institute (NSTI), and since the program’s start twenty years ago, thousands of students have participated. NSTI programs are held each summer at various colleges and universities throughout the U.S. They offer high-school and middle-school students the opportunity to learn about different transportation fields, to meet with transportation professionals, and to build STEM skills, including those used in transportation careers. In the summer of 2017, in Massachusetts, the NSTI program was held at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass-Amherst). Over the past six summers the NSTI program at UMass-Amherst has hosted close to 100 students in total.

A defining feature of the NSTI program is that it is 100% free for all participants, including classroom activities and real time experiences in the field. Some NSTI sites have residential programs and others are commuter-based. In the residential programs, the program pays all room and board costs. Another defining feature of the program is its emphasis on having diverse participants, including economically disadvantaged or at-risk students, and students with disabilities.

For the past two years, the NSTI program at UMass-Amherst served high-school students and included both commuter and residential options. In 2017, the program drew participants from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Illinois, California, Puerto Rico, and an international student from Honduras. Eighteen students participated in 2017, including 12 residential students and 6 commuters. Thirty-nine percent (39%) of this year’s participants were female and half of them (50%) were Hispanic, Asian, African American or multiracial.

The 2017 UMass-Amherst NSTI ran for 3 ½ weeks. The curriculum was wide-ranging and multi-modal, and each week focused on a different mode or aspect of transportation and transportation research. Transportation topics covered in the curriculum included aviation and air traffic control, water transportation, bus transit, rail transit, autonomous vehicles (both on-road and aerial, aka drones), driver training and safety, driving simulation, sustainability, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and transportation financing. Students gained both general knowledge on these topics as well as technical skills. They conducted hands-on transit counts, vehicle speed monitoring, bridge infrastructure reviews, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle exercises in the field and in classrooms.

2017 UMass-Amherst NSTI, Northampton Amtrak Field Trip with MassDOT Director of Rail, Tim Doherty

They learned about software for bridge design, intersection analysis, and 3D modeling. The students met with academic researchers and transportation professionals in the public and private sector, and had multiple field trips each week. Over the last two years, participants visited the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, the Springfield and Northampton Amtrak stations, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s headquarters in Boston and the field office in Northampton, the Westover Air Force Base, the New England Air Museum, the UMass-Amherst Transit Center, and the UMass-Amherst Police Station. The program also provided higher-education and career support for students, with sessions on resumés, internship opportunities, online career and job sites, and college-test prep. The students were encouraged to give daily feedback on the program and asked to provide an overall evaluation at the end of the NSTI session. Of the 2017 participants, all but one said they would recommend the program to a peer or friend. The feedback received will be used to improve the program in future years.

Other universities that have run NSTIs include the University of Massachusetts-Boston, which had a commuter-program for 10 years, 2005 to 2014, and Vermont Tech, which ran two programs in 2017, one for middle-school students and one for high-school students.

MassDOT Secretary Pollack with 2017 NSTI students, UMass-Amherst NSTI closing ceremony