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School of Civil and Environmental Engineering launches smart cities concentration

Cornell’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) will offer a smart cities concentration to its undergraduate students beginning in the fall 2021 semester.

The optional concentration recognizes the growing ubiquity of sensors, smart devices, real-time data and advancements in artificial intelligence in the fields of civil and environmental engineering. The curriculum will prepare students for a future that demands fluency in both civil engineering know-how and the ability to design feedback and control systems to better match supply and demand of critical civil systems to improve services and opportunities for all.

The smart cities concentration joins three other concentrations currently offered by CEE: civil infrastructure, transportation, and environment.

Professor John Albertson, who will be teaching a class called Engineering Smart Cities (CEE 4800) in the fall, said he is thrilled to see the addition. “Classically, in engineering we teach the disciplinary science behind these physical, chemical and biological systems,” Albertson said. “And in computer science they have been doing a lot of data analytics and machine learning, but in the absence of physical constraints like the conservation of mass and the conservation of energy.”

Albertson sees the smart cities focus as a marriage of these two approaches. “In the research many civil engineers are now doing, we have this wide deployment of sensors that are giving us a diagnostic view of what is going on in our natural and our engineered systems,” said Albertson, who added that CEE recognizes that, given the abundance of data, it is essential that students of civil engineering learn how to analyze and make decisions based on the data.

Albertson continues, “How you analyze the data, how you interpret what the system is doing, and then how you make decisions on how to better control the systems – these are all aspects that didn’t really map well onto the traditional civil engineering curriculum.” The school has realized that they could not simply add more courses in order to get students the information they need, so under the leadership of CEE Director Linda Nozick, they have found existing courses where the instructors can bring the idea of data and observations into the physical models already being taught.

“Civil engineering is an evolving profession,” Nozick said. “It is still focused on the built environment, but there is a growing awareness that where and how we build touches on the very fabric of society. Civil engineering at Cornell is a place for students who want to change the world, and this increased focus on the tools and skills of sensors, controls, data analytics, machine learning and evaluation metrics will ensure that our graduates have the tools they will need for real impact.”

In addition to Albertson’s Engineering Smart Cities class, four other classes in the smart cities concentration will be part of the 2021-22 curriculum offered by CEE. Professor Chris Earls will teach CEE 5735/6736 – Mathematical Modeling of Natural and Engineered Systems in the fall and CEE 5745/6745 – Inverse Problems: Theory and Applications in the spring; Assistant Professor Samitha Samaranayake will teach CEE 4665 – Modeling and Optimization for Smart Infrastructure Systems in the spring; Assistant Professor Greg McLaskey will offer CEE 4795/5795 – Sensors for the Built and Natural Environments in the spring; and Professor Nozick will teach CEE 4930 – Data Analytics in the fall.

Albertson reports that spots for his fall class are filling quickly and Nozick says that CEE plans to offer the smart cities concentration as a minor as soon as administratively possible.

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