CEM Jeep used in field at CU Denver
CEM Director Kevin Rens, left, and recent civil graduate Stephen Sowal stand next to one of the Jeeps, emblazoned with CU Denver's tagline "CU in the City," used in the field.

CU Denver at center of city repair projects

Streets, bridges in need of rehab? Denver turns to CEM students, professors for solutions

January 19, 2018

How does one become the engineer of record on dozens of Denver’s infrastructure rehabilitation projects?

For Civil Engineering Professor Kevin Rens, PhD, PE – and the many students he’s mentored in both the classroom and the field – it’s quite simple. It comes down to loving the minutiae of the craft – identifying each crack in the pavement, rating the structural integrity of every component, and planning in precise detail the path to a longer life for bridges, streets, sidewalks, curbs and just about anything else that makes up Denver’s road system.


Since the mid-1990s, when the city of Denver got serious about shifting from complaint-driven maintenance – “I’m sick of this pothole!” – to a data-driven approach, Rens and his CU Denver students have been at the center of the city’s repair projects.

So when the professor and director of the Construction Engineering and Management (CEM) program tools around in a Jeep emblazoned with our “CU in the City” logo, he can proudly say he and his students are in the city in a supremely hands-on way. “Since I’m always in the field on all the various types of infrastructure it made sense that I have a vehicle,” Rens said. “When I’m out driving, I become aware of people noticing the unique vehicle. It’s like a mobile billboard of CU Denver going around town.”

Partnering with the city

CEM projects cover city
Stephen Sowal, a recent graduate of the CEM program, checks rebar embedded within concrete on a Denver street project.

Catching the eye of Denver project managers in the early 1990s was Rens’s focus on inspection-rating maintenance and rehabilitation for his master’s and PhD degrees. The city and county awarded Rens a $50,000 grant to manage maintenance identification in 1996, and since then his services have been funded every year, and in increasingly larger amounts. “Some of the projects are less scholarly than others, but there’s always an academic thread in there,” he said. “Students use the projects for independent studies, master’s theses or doctoral dissertations. We’ve published many, many papers on (aspects of these projects) over time.”

Currently, Rens is managing a $1.58 million rehabilitation project of the Mississippi Avenue bridge over the South Platte River about a mile south of the Denver Broncos’ stadium. The planning for the improvements began five years ago. “It’s a 40-year-old structure – rated in moderate to poor condition – and I want to get it to 75 years. How do I get 35 more years? I’m going to put $1.58 million worth of love into it,” he said.

Real world in the classroom

It’s one of the dozens of projects he can talk about with his students – and even employ many of them in the various levels of a project of this magnitude. “I enjoy bringing the stuff I learn in the real world back into the classroom,” Rens said. “It’s clear you get more respect from students if you’re actually willing to swing a hammer as opposed to just telling someone how to swing a hammer.”

When it comes to urban arterials that offer a little of everything – high traffic, curving viaducts, an interstate crossing, a river span, etc. – Denver’s 8th Avenue ranks right up there. Naturally, when a stretch of the road needed a strong dose of “love,” the city enlisted Rens and his students. One of his students, Brandon Zhou, used the project as the subject of his doctoral dissertation, employing three CU Denver master’s students in the process. The students gathered a year’s-worth of real-time data on the 8th Avenue viaduct – it’s stresses and strains, and how its geometries change with temperature differences. For instance, the viaduct can move several inches in a single day when temperatures fluctuate dramatically.

“The beauty of this is Brandon is going to get to see some of his work actually be implemented,” Rens said. “He will likely get to see a construction company take on some of his ideas and put them on the structure and repair it.”

Students get ‘foot in door’

CEM students solve problems in Denver infrastructure
Recent CU Denver civil engineering graduate Stephen Sowal checks the guard rail of a bridge over Cherry Creek in downtown Denver.

When students can demonstrate full field capabilities, such as hands-on repair to a guard-rail on Speer Boulevard in front of the CU Building, which they did recently, it goes on a resume and greatly enhances their employment prospects. Developing this work ethic and expertise are students of all levels – bachelors, master’s, PhD and post-doc. Even high school students get an opportunity to work on the projects during the summer.

“It’s their foot in the door,” Rens said of the students. “The more experience you have coming out of school that you can document, the better it’s going to be for you to get into private or government positions. And our students come out with large amounts of training.”

It’s no wonder that the CEM program has seen steady growth since its launch in 2014. It is a cooperative, interdisciplinary CEM program backed by industry and supported by accredited schools of architecture and business. “We have a wonderful team with great synergy, which includes professors Caroline Clevenger, Moatassem Abdallah, Heidi Brothers and instructor Bob Kois,” Rens said.

CEM weaves together coursework in CU Denver’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, Business School and College of Architecture and Planning. Accommodating the fast-growing population – Colorado is expected to add 3 million residents in the next 25 years – will require a boom of new homes, commercial space, transportation and municipal infrastructure.

‘We look out on the city and see our classroom. That’s a totally unique asset for our students.’

— Roxanne Pizano, CEM program coordinator

Growing CEM program

The interdisciplinary aspects of CU Denver CEM make the program very unique, and it’s only enhanced by the program’s location. “The fact that all these bridges we work on are centered around here – we’re right in the middle of it – makes this work so convenient,” Rens said.

Roxanne Pizano serves as the CEM program coordinator and her job is made easier by Rens’s sterling reputation as a project manager – not to mention deep knowledge of every street, alley and bridge in Denver – as well as the cityscape that fills her window in North Classroom.

“The CU in the City campaign perfectly aligns with the work we provide our students,” Pizano said. “We look out on the city and see our classroom. That’s a totally unique asset for our students.”