Underground construction and tunnel engineering is truly an interdisciplinary practice, involving knowledge and skills primarily in civil engineering, geological engineering and mining engineering and, to a lesser extent, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, geophysics, geology and others.
In addition to knowledge of traditional construction techniques, students must learn to design, build, rehabilitate and manage structures unique to the underground space, such as caverns, shafts and tunnels for commercial, transportation, water, wastewater and utility use. They must be able to do this while considering a host of environmental and other factors–soil and rock behavior, groundwater conditions, excavation method, construction materials, existing infrastructure and more.
Colorado School of Mines’ UCTE program is designed to match what industry is looking for, says Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Mike Mooney, who leads the program.
Typical required courses include engineering geology and geotechnics, underground construction engineering in both soft ground and hard rock, soil behavior and construction engineering and management. Electives may include foundation engineering, soil mechanics, groundwater engineering, analytical hydrology, mine ventilation, drilling and blasting and more.
Students looking to enter the underground construction and tunneling field must also be prepared for new trends, techniques and technology.
Mines’ Haotian Zheng, for example, is pursuing a PhD specializing in adaptive and data-driven computational modeling, dynamic risk assessment and innovative field modeling. “I believe those rapidly developed technologies in artificial intelligence, robotics and material science will gradually transform the way we construct tunnels that we have never thought before,” says Zheng. “Sooner or later, the tunnel industry will welcome a digital world.”
Any advanced program worth its salt will provide its students with opportunities with real-world experience specifically in tunneling and underground work. Internships are a critical part of the UCTE program at Mines, boosted by the university’s cultivation of close relationships with industry.
“We promote a very applied research environment,” said Mooney in an interview with Tunnel Business Magazine. “We really want to help advance solutions that will move the industry forward, tackle complicated problems, help grow the market for tunneling by developing solutions, knowledge and technologies that allow tunnel design and tunnel construction in environments that perhaps haven’t been advanced before.”
“After doing some research and from personal experience working as an engineer, UCTE seemed to be the perfect marriage of geological sciences and fundamental engineering,” says Ryan O’Connell, a master’s student in UCTE. “Once I had decided on pursuing a career in the tunneling industry, it was almost immediately clear that Mines was the premier institution to obtain my advanced degree.”