REU: Sustainability of Horizontal Civil Networks in Rural Areas

Develop sustainable engineering solutions to infrastructure challenges in rural environments.

For information contact

Christine Wittich

Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Funding Source

NSF EEC-1950597

See Projects

2022 Sustainability trip to Western Nebraska
2022 Sustainability trip to Western Nebraska

Who should apply

Related fields

  • Civil Engineering
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Chemistry
  • Earth Sciences

This program encourages applications from students at all undergraduate levels including freshman and sophomores.


Participation in the Nebraska Summer Research Program is limited to students who meet the following criteria:
  • U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident
  • Current undergraduate with at least one semester of coursework remaining before obtaining a bachelor's degree

See Eligibility for more information.

How to apply

Follow the application steps to submit the following materials.

About the Program

Rural areas, which contain approximately 20% of the US population and over 90% of the land area in the United States, are fundamental to human well-being in both rural and urban areas. Rural areas provide resources such as the infrastructure for U.S. food and bioenergy production as well as the transportation infrastructure from inland urban centers to ports. Rural areas are characterized by agricultural- and natural resource-based economics, stable or declining populations with low population densities, and “farm-to-market” localized transportation patterns, and these characteristics necessitate new technologies and approaches for civil infrastructure. Despite the differences between rural and urban regions, little attention is paid to the unique challenges and opportunities for sustainability in rural areas.

In this ten-week summer research program, students will work with faculty in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to conduct research and will contribute new knowledge to improve our understanding of how best to address the challenges facing rural environments.  Through collaboration with industry partners, students will also be given opportunities to learn how infrastructure challenges are currently being addressed by the civil and environmental engineering industry. In addition, this program offers a series of communication development opportunities including preparation of a conference paper, informal presentations to their peers, formal poster presentations, and outreach to high school students.


  • Competitive stipend: $6,000
  • Suite-style room and meal plan
  • Travel expenses to and from Lincoln
  • Campus parking and/or bus pass
  • Full access to the Campus Recreation Center and campus library system
  • Wireless internet access

Learn more about academic and financial benefits.


  • Department seminars and presentations
  • Professional development workshops (e.g., applying to graduate school, taking the GRE)
  • Welcome picnic
  • Day trip to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
  • Outdoor adventures
  • Research symposium

Mentors and Projects

Dr. Nirupam Aich Civil and Environmental Engineering: Environmental Engineering

Advanced nanomaterials and manufacturing for PFAS remediation

Significance: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is an emerging pollutant that has become a major threat to the environment and public health. PFAS compounds are difficult to degrade in the natural environment as well as conventional water treatment processes and can accumulate within human body leading to different diseases. Our group designs sustainable nanomaterials and nanotechnology with unique capabilities to treat and remove PFAS compounds from our drinking water, ground water or wastewater. We are also combining 3D printing approaches to design nanotechnology-based water filters that can simultaneously separate and degrade PFAS from water. The objective of this research is to design catalytic nano-filters using 3D printing. We will design novel filters, characterize their mechanical, physical, and chemical properties, and also, we will identify their capabilities to achieve PFAS adsorption and/or degradation.  

Dr. Shannon Bartelt-Hunt Civil and Environmental Engineering: Environmental Engineering

Microplastics Occurrence in Agricultural Streams

Significance: The occurrence of microplastics, an emerging contaminant in agricultural systems, is very poorly characterized. Plastics are a frequently observed component of marine debris and there is growing concern about microplastic ecotoxicity, and the impacts of sorbed hazardous organic contaminants, heavy metals and biofilms on microplastic surfaces. However, microplastics are increasingly being found in terrestrial freshwater environments in addition to marine systems. To date, there is little information about how surrounding land use affects the concentrations of microplastics in freshwater streams. The primary research question to be addressed in this project is how concentrations of microplastics in freshwater streams differ between agricultural and suburban land uses.

Dr. Jongwan Eun Civil and Environmental Engineering: Geotechnical Engineering

Characterization of Gas Production and Mechanical Properties of Solid Waste in Rural Areas

Significance: Landfills are typically sited in rural areas with low population densities. Gas production and leachate can be particularly concerning in rural areas due to the reliance upon groundwater. Therefore, accurate predictions of landfill gas (LFG) emissions and waste settlement are crucial for the prevention of greenhouse gas emissions and for sustainable management of a municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill. The objective of this research is to characterize gas production and leachate of solid waste by using a direct injection logger including a piezocone penetration test (PCPT) with a hydraulic profiling tool (HPT) and membrane interface probe (MIP). This project aims to evaluate the properties of landfills and determine best practices for sustainable management of gas production. The primary research questions to be answered in this project are: 1) Can gas production be accurately measured in landfills using an in situ method? and 2) What are the in situ mechanical properties of solid waste?

Dr. Jason Hawkins Civil and Environmental Engineering: Transportation Engineering

Challenges and Potential for Electric Vehicle Adoption in Rural Nebraska

Significance: The transportation sector is among the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. A key pathway to decarbonization of the sector is electrification of the private vehicle stock. This pathway is particularly important in rural areas, where transit and land use planning are less feasible options. Rural residents generally drive further than their urban counterparts, while facing a relative deficit in infrastructure investments. As such, there is a need for an analysis of both the sufficiency of charging infrastructure in rural regions and the ability of electric vehicles to meet rural residents’ travel needs. The primary objective of this research is to examine the ability of electric vehicles (EVs) to satisfy the travel requirements of rural Nebraskans. In addition, the spatial allocation of charging stations relative to travel demand will be investigated to identify whether there is a rural deficit.

Dr. Seunghee Kim Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: Geotechnical Engineering

Influence of Nebraska biochar on the hydraulic and mechanical properties of rural soils

Significance: Biochar, a product of combustion of organic materials, such as corps, rice husk, forest residues, and agricultural residues, has been emerging as a potential soil amendment. To date, there are many kinds of researches that examined the potential impacts of biochar on soil carbon sequestration capacity, soil fertility, crop production, and chemical properties. However, a study on the implication of biochar application on the hydraulic and mechanical properties is still lacking. Research on this aspect could open a new opportunity for biochar use and management, particularly for rural soils. The research objective is to examine a potential improvement in the hydraulic and mechanical properties of rural soils in Nebraska.

Dr. Kaycie Lane Civil and Environmental Engineering: Structural Engineering

Understanding and evaluating Nebraska’s infrastructure capacity to treat PFAS contamination

Significance: Current drinking water treatment facility capacity to treat emerging contaminants of concern in Nebraska is not well understood.  Rising levels of new contaminants such as PFAS result in strains on existing drinking water infrastructure, with many very small water systems (serving less than 500 people) needing immediate or long-term improvement or retrofitting in order to adequately provide safe drinking water to customers.   It is particularly challenging in small systems to implement new technologies in a timely manner due to financial, technical and managerial concerns.  The first step to addressing contaminants of concern such as PFAS is therefore to identify at-risk systems which will help prioritize resources (money, time, etc.) and provide small systems with a reliable improvement in a timely manner.

Dr. Xu Li Civil and Environmental Engineering: Environmental Engineering

Producing Clean Energy and Value-Added Products from Animal Wastes

Significance: Modernizing the agricultural industry is critical in building a sustainable future. One important component of agricultural modernization is to manage agricultural wastes from the perspective of circular economy. A waste-to-resource approach should be developed to convert the organics in animal wastes to clean energy (e.g., hydrogen gas) or value-added products (e.g., medium chain carboxylic acids, or MCCAs). Hydrogen gas is an important form of energy in decarbonizing the economy, while MCCAs can be used as feedstocks to produce valuable chemical compounds. The first objective is to develop and operate a bioreactor system to convert the organics in animal wastes into hydrogen gas or MCCAs. The second objective is to characterize the microbes inside the bioreactor system.

Dr. Yusong Li Civil and Environmental Engineering: Water Resources Engineering

Predicting Rural Environmental and Water Quality Under a Changing Climate

Significance: Agricultural nonpoint source pollution (NPS) is a significant contributor to the contamination of surface water and groundwater resources. With increasing demands on global agricultural production and the need to maintain sustainable water resources in the future, it is crucial to identify areas with high agricultural NPS potentials. Understanding the spatial distribution of NPS pollution is essential for the design of mitigation strategies. This project will quantify and predict the spatial distribution of agricultural NPS risks in the United States under historical and future climate scenarios. 

Dr. Daniel Linzell Civil and Environmental Engineering: Structural Engineering

Multilevel Analytics and Data Sharing for OPerations Planning (MADS-OPP)

Significance: Changes in infrastructure condition, such as degradation to a bridge element that reduce load carrying capacity, can cause costly rerouting delays. MADS-OPP will assess transportation infrastructure conditions to identify optimal maneuver routes in real time. The project paves the way for bringing Big Data opportunities to bridge health assessment using next generation sensing techniques and platforms. Our technology will facilitate controlled sharing of data from different owners, allow distributed data storage, and audit data streamed from multiple sources. The project will demonstrate how algorithm-based use of complex data sets can model infrastructure health at element and wholistic levels. We will develop data products using physics driven, high-fidelity machine learning algorithms and visualizations for infrastructure condition assessment in support of optimal route planning. 

Dr. Mojdeh Pajouh Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: Geotechnical and Materials Engineering

Study of Electric Vehicles Crashworthiness and Compatibility with Existing Roadside Features


There has been considerable interest in electric vehicles (EVs) from consumers, government agencies, and manufacturers resulting in an exponential growth in new EV sales. EV-related run-off-road (ROR) crashes and interactions with roadside features can pose unique and significant concerns. It is imperative that infrastructure be compatible with all vehicles to avoid unnecessary loss of life and critical transportation infrastructure damage. However, little is known about EV crash performance with roadside features. The objective of this research is to review real-world crash data involving EVs with roadside features and guide transportation agencies to implement the optimal deployment of safe products, research, and interactions. This research aims to identify (1) what EV and roadside feature compatibility problems exist, (2) what are contributing factors to “bad outcomes” involving EVs and roadside features, and (3) provide recommendations to improve the universality of roadside feature design.

Dr. Grace Panther Civil and Environmental Engineering: Environmental Engineering and Engineering Education

Spatial Visualization Skills and Engineering Problem Solving

Significance: Spatial skills have been linked to success in STEM degree attainment. Spatial skills have also shown some correlation to successful problem solving. This study investigates the links between spatial skills and problem solving by using several spatial measures and engineering problems while collecting eye tracking data and perceived stress (wrist band data). Two research questions guide the project: 1) Do rural and urban students differ in terms of their spatial skills and engineering problem solving? 2) Do stress levels and eye movements differ between rural and urban students when solving engineering problems?

Dr. Tirthankar Roy Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: Water Resources Engineering

Machine learning approaches to address problems related to rural hydrology

Significance: Proper understanding of hydrology can help us better manage our water resources and build resilience to hydrologic extremes, such as floods and droughts. New datasets of different hydrologic variables are becoming more readily available with the advances in remote sensing technologies, in situ monitoring, and model-based assessments. Machine learning has great potential in effectively addressing a plethora of problems in the field of hydrology, leveraging these large datasets. Several problems are becoming increasingly more tractable, which was not the case before with limited data availability. This is also opening up several avenues for testing novel hypotheses related to hydrologic process-understanding. Students in this project will be working on machine learning algorithms to address hydrologic problems in the rural settings. The problems can be related to physical process-understanding where, among other things, we try to understand what factors influence different hydrologic processes and how. We study how these processes interact with each other and coevolve. The problem can also be related to hydrologic modeling, where we try to model different aspects of the physical system. Once we have a model of the system, it can be used for a wide range of problems (e.g., generation of forecasts, analysis of future scenarios, optimal water management, etc.).

Dr. Chungwook Sim Civil and Environmental Engineering: Structural Engineering

Computer-Vision Based Health Monitoring of Aging Rural Bridge Infrastructure

Significance: The number of aging rural bridges are increasing in Nebraska.  When it comes to make decisions to repair, rebuild, or rehabilitate these aging rural bridges, decisions are made by prioritizing the ranks of these bridges.  Condition ratings made by the inspectors for bridge deck, superstructure, and substructure are one of the parameters used in this decision making.  Human visual inspection is typically conducted first and if needed, additional measures are used to assess the level of deterioration for condition ratings.  This process becomes a challenge when there are thousands of bridges and limited number of inspectors available.  To assist this inspection process, this project will focus on developing a computer-vision based system to monitor the health of our aging rural bridge infrastructures.   

Dr. Joshua Steelman Civil and Environmental Engineering: Structural Engineering

Revisiting Reliability for Rural Bridges

Significance: Rural bridges are crucial to agricultural economic activities, particularly during harvest seasons when crop yield transportation imposes heavy loads on bridges. Many bridges in rural areas are at or beyond their intended service life and were designed either for unknown or lower vehicle loading than required in modern codes. Unnecessarily imposing load restrictions on bridges leads to increased trip frequencies and lengths for freight vehicles, or demolishing and replacing safe bridges.  Therefore, it is desirable to maximize permitted vehicle loading and extend service lives of aging bridges. Reassessing the structural capacity and mechanical response to vehicular loads for rural bridges is critical to achieving this goal. The primary research question that this project addresses is: how does uncertainty in mechanical response to vehicular loads influence structural reliability for rural bridges?

Dr. Jamilla Teixeira Civil and Environmental Engineering: Structural Engineering

Use of Residues from Nebraska Agriculture Sites as Paving Material

Significance: The recycling of waste materials and reducing the carbon footprint of manufactured products through conserving energy and reducing the use of raw materials has become a primary focus. Pavement maintenance and new roadway construction in rural area require tons of new materials. Landfill, as a traditional residue waste disposal method, has a high demand for land resources, which has also become a key issue for solid waste disposal. Recycled asphalt pavement (RAP), asphalt shingles (RAS), waste plastic residues (WPR), agriculture wastes and/or filler by-products can be alternative sustainable materials for asphalt mixture production. The goal of this research project is, first, to determine what are the main types of residues from Nebraska agricultural areas. From this initial assessment, our goal is to identify potential residues that could be used for asphalt mixture production. Our ultimate goal is to determine the most appropriate addition method and percentage of selected residues in the mixture to obtain optimized and feasible asphalt mixtures with recycled material addition. 

Dr. Christine Wittich Civil and Environmental Engineering: Structural Engineering

Resilience of Agricultural Infrastructure and Rural Communities to Natural Hazards

Significance: Despite the criticality of the agricultural industry to both U.S. and global sustainable food production, the resulting lack of economic diversity in most rural areas is theorized to be a major contributor to the low resilience of rural communities to natural hazards, including earthquakes and windstorms. While resilience is a function of many socioeconomic and organizational factors, the disaster response of the built environment is a critical aspect that cannot be ignored. In many rural areas, critical infrastructure includes vital agricultural support and production systems, such steel grain bins. However, these structures are not typically design to consistent standards and have been observed to perform poorly in recent severe windstorms. This research aims to generate a fundamental understanding of the performance of steel grin bins during extreme windstorms to enhance rural resilience to natural hazards.

Dr. Richard Wood Civil and Environmental Engineering: Structural Engineering

Remote Sensing for Wind Characterization in Rural Areas

Significance: Remote sensing data collection from unpiloted aerial systems (or drones) is an efficient and well-known approach to study the impact following extreme windstorms. Example windstorms include hurricanes, tornadoes, and straight-line winds; which result in damage to both the built and natural environment.  Post-event damage surveys typically utilize the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale to relate structural damage to wind speeds; however, these are limited in application to rural areas.  Rural areas, which encompass a significant portion of the US with high windstorm risk, are typically sparsely populated with few structures and consequently, the relationship of natural and agricultural systems to wind speed is highly uncertain. Remote sensing data in terms of high-resolution imagery and point clouds can collect perishable data related to the distribution, orientation, and severity of damage for understanding windstorms. This research aims to develop workflows for analyzing remote sensing data through the application of computer vision and artificial intelligence techniques to understand the wind hazard and response of the built and natural environment with a particular focus on rural areas.