SJSU Teaches Transportation Impact and Innovations to High School Students

by | Aug 10, 2022 | Academics

Assistant Professor Bo Yang instructs local high school students on drones and aerial mapping as part of the Mineta Summer Transportation Institute. Photo: Robert C. Bain.

San José State University recently hosted 32 high school students for its annual three-week, innovative Mineta Summer Transportation Institute (MSTI). Now in its 18th year, the program is the result of a longstanding partnership between the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) and Caltrans: California Department of Transportation. The MSTI is completely free and provides the opportunity for students to earn three transferable college credits in environmental studies from SJSU, after completing all course requirements and a final exam.

According to MTI Executive Director Karen Philbrick, the MSTI was created, in part, as a way to address a critical shortage of a qualified workforce currently faced by the transportation industry.

“More than half of the industry’s employees will be eligible for retirement in the next three to five years,” said Philbrick. “That makes the MSTI a timely program to generate students’ interest in transportation careers early on.” 

The student participants are competitively selected from high schools across the Bay Area, and many are from underserved communities. Some have never had the opportunity to experience certain types of transportation firsthand, such as the light rail or air travel, nor have been to a college campus, explained Philbrick.

The MSTI exposes them to both, while teaching them about environmental science and how transportation contributes to greenhouse gases, climate impact and initiatives, and current transportation innovations.

Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows the transportation sector is the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the nation. Therefore, a program, such as the MSTI, that is designed to help students make the connection between transportation and environmental impact, is particularly significant. 

New innovations and activities

This year, the program was redesigned to include new types of STEM-related activities to engage students, including a crash course in geographic information systems and drones, and a variety of local field trips, including visits to California High Speed Rail in Fresno, Coast Guard Island in Alameda, the Port of Oakland, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in San José. 

Each of the hands-on activities and trips were chosen to showcase the different sectors of the transportation industry, such as aviation, passenger rail, maritime/freight, highways, pedestrian life and micro mobility — and to do so in ways that are both educational and fun. 

“Our program is unique in that we take kids to Henry Cowell State Park, so they can see the big beautiful trees and they can learn about the impact that transportation has on our environment,” said Philbrick. “And we want to show them what’s possible, and by making the experience memorable and engaging, it’s much more impactful than lecturing at them for three whole weeks.”

On day one of the program, Bo Yang, an assistant professor of GIS and FAA Part107 remote-pilot in the department of urban and regional planning, with teaching assistant My-thu Tran, SJSU master’s student in geography led the instruction about drones. It included how to fly and use them for aerial mapping, particularly in societal and environmental science applications.

Yang first demonstrated how the controls work on both a large and small drone and then supervised the students while they tried flying the machines in an open area outside the SJSU Lucas College and Graduate School of Business.

Yang added that the drone training program is important for initiating the students’ interest in transportation and environmental science, given their potential for future studies and contributions to the science field. 

A few of the participants were interviewed by local media outlets about the experience. Charlotte Ho, an Evergreen Valley High School student in San Jose, told the Mercury News she had a great time piloting the drone. Ho, who has an interest in engineering, said “The only experience I’ve had flying remote control vehicles was a tiny helicopter. This was a lot better.”

Other activities included the opportunity to learn from industry experts from Mountain View-based startup Nuro. The company visited the SJSU campus to provide the students with a close-up of its autonomous vehicle technology.

Alumnus SJSU alumnus and CEO and President of Crossroad Lab Vignesh Swaminathan, ’14 BS, ’16 MS Civil Engineering, leading a walking tour of downtown San José bike lanes with students.

Vignesh Swaminathan, ’14 BS, ’16 MS Civil Engineering, leading a walking tour of downtown San José bike lanes with MSTI students.

SJSU alumnus and CEO and President of Crossroad Lab Vignesh Swaminathan, ’14 BS, ’16 MS Civil Engineering, gave a talk about bike transportation and safety and led the students on a walking tour to view recent changes to downtown bike lanes. Swaminathan’s firm led the recent Better BikewaySJ project to improve safety and ease of biking and walking in downtown San José.

The MSTI program culminated on August 5 with a tour of the VTA and a “graduation” for the student participants. 

“Our aspiration all along has been to make the MSTI one of the most critical workforce development programs we have in our state,” said Philbrick. “So it’s great to have the support of Caltrans, which we know hopes to have SJSU’s program modeled by others for its best practices.”