BOZEMAN — When 7 miles of outdated guardrail are replaced along Highway 191 in Gallatin Canyon this summer, the system will meet the same safety standards as other new roadside barriers in Montana. What makes the $1.7 million project different is that Montana State University students produced the drawings and other specifications needed to make it a reality.

 In what's called the Design Unit at MSU, civil engineering undergraduates work alongside Montana Department of Transportation staff to get hands-on experience while lightening the load on an agency that typically has more than 300 projects in its queue, according to Chad Welborn, the program's manager. The students work on up to 10 projects at a time, he said.

 "When (the plans) leave our office, they're ready for the contractor to bid on the project," Welborn said. Other recent projects include a safer road curve near Pony, a multi-use path through Arlee and upgrades to a rest area near Missoula.

(MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.)

 "This program provides outstanding opportunities for our students to apply their education to projects that improve Montana," said Craig Woolard, head of the Department of Civil Engineering in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.

"It's very real-world," said Hannah Joki, a Helena native who started by working in the Design Unit during the summer after her sophomore year. "A lot of internships aren't this hands-on."

 During her two years in the program, Joki helped design replacement culverts near Lookout Pass that will improve roadside drainage and also passage for trout and other fish. Using computer drafting software, she also completed maps needed for permitting multiple other projects.

 The eight students in the Design Unit create stormwater permit maps for MDT projects, according to Danae Giannetti, one of three MDT Design Unit engineers. The students also conduct the annual update of a thick book that specifies standard design details, such as how a guardrail bolts to a post. And the students maintain MDT's maps of all the airports in the state. The program operates as a paid internship in which students typically work full-time during summers and part-time throughout the school year.

 Besides getting real work done for MDT, the program is an opportunity for the agency to invest in students by giving them a solid foundation of knowledge that will serve them well if they go on to work at MDT, according to Design Unit engineer Rod Payne. "We can step back and focus on fundamentals," he said.

 Since MDT began administering the program in partnership with MSU more than 25 years ago, about 60 program alumni have joined MDT for their first job after college, according to Welborn. He estimates that roughly the same number have found work in Montana with companies that contract engineering services with MDT. Joki, who graduated from MSU in May with a bachelor's in civil engineering, will begin her new job this summer as a field engineer in MDT's Kalispell construction field office.

 Dwane Kailey, who worked for more than a year in the Design Unit starting in 1992, also got a job at MDT following graduation. Now he is a chief engineer at MDT and administers the agency's Highways and Engineering Division.

 "The thing I liked about it was that it supplied us with a lot of practical experience," Kailey said. While designing a renovation of the main road through Big Timber, his adviser taught him the importance of meticulously documenting each design decision -- a skill that has served him well, he said.

 That's one reason why Design Unit students are so sought-after by MDT following graduation. They have projects waiting for them, Kailey said. "They're able to hit the ground running, jump right in and start designing away."

 - By Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service -