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Engineering boss at PSU sees Portland and the college straddling several fault lines, presenting a chance to show leadership

COURTESY: PSU - Richard Corsi, PSUs' new dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, specializes in fluid dynamics, and sees cheap sensors as being the key to capturing data on traffic flow, water pressure, air quality and stress on bridges and highways. The university would be able to help analyze it and model the data to predict things like health outcomes, if enough people volunteer their information.

Richard Corsi, new dean of Portland State University's Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, has a plan to make the school more relevant to business and to Portland.

He wants:

? Everyone in the engineering school to get some real-world work experience while they are studying.

? The engineering school to be a leader in "Extraordinary events" or disasters.

? PSU to be an engineering school to rival Oregon State University, an urban school in the thick of things, sitting on a fault lines both geographical and economic (software, advanced manufacturing, the Internet of Things).

? Portland to become known as a "brilliant city," which is his own term for one step up from a smart city.

Corsi is new in town. He spent 25 at the University of Texas at Austin, where most recently he headed their Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE).

He'd been in Portland just 10 days when he sat down with the Business Tribune in his half-unpacked office on Southwest Fourth Avenue.

In an inaugural address to the faculty, stakeholders and students later this month he says he will "challenge them on curriculum reform, how we think of ourselves and the partnerships we develop. I have my views on where I think the college should go but I want this to be a grass roots thing."

The need to connect students to the real world is pressing for Corsi, who says currently 60 percent of engineers do either a summer internship or a co-op. The latter means spending two full semesters, or an entire academic year, rotating between three companies to get a flavor of work.

Other departments, such as Business, have strong ties to local companies such as Nike, Boeing and Intel. He sees co-ops as helping the engineering school to business pipeline. "It provides the companies contacts with our students and they do work. And hopefully it turns into something beyond graduation."

A good internship or co-op is one where the company finds out about a student's interests and gives them a short, discrete project to work on. He mentions that his counterpart the dean of the Business School, Cliff Allen, is developing a more robust co-op program at the university level, and Corsi wants to help.

He waxes nostalgic a moment about his own college days studying environmental engineering in Humboldt State in California. Corsi worked for a small environmental consultant in Arcata on a project to look into pollution effects form a proposed wood burning powerplant. Since he was both passionate about fluid mechanics (as he still is) and capable of writing computer models in Fortran, he got a sizeable chunk of the work. The plant was never built but he benefitted from the experience.

"You pick up the subtleties of real-world problems: this meeting got cancelled or you can't get this information...Everything in the world is not perfect like in the classroom."

Austin city limits

Austin went from the United States' 26th largest city in 1994, when Corsi moved there, to being projected 10th in the next census in 2020. Oregon has three million people, Texas has 28 million and is projected to have 51 million by 2050. "It's going to be its own planet," he jokes. Throw in the stat that Austin is the number on destination for college grads to move to in the US — it's its own Portlandia — and you can see where Corsi is coming from.

"The Portland economy right now is not that different from the Austin economy when we (he and his wife) moved there in the 1990s. The economy in Austin was just getting ready to take off. The level of industry was similar to where Portland is now."

He's seen change close up.

"What you learn is as industry grows, great things happen; people have jobs, it brings a lot of young people to the city. But the city transforms in other ways. In Austin, that was a tremendous increase in traffic."

Currently renting a house near Reed College, he likes being able to take light rail to work for the first time in his life.

"This college's transportation group, connected with CUPA (the College of Urban and Public Affairs) they are one of the best transportation groups in the country. Portland has a much better transportation system than Austin. Austin missed opportunities for building in mass transit in 1980s and 1990s. They had bond initiatives voted down, and now the city's a mess, it's just gridlock. It's too late now, there's just too much development in the way."

He's apocalyptic in his vison, yet optimistic about where the school fits in.

In August, he and his wife drove here from Austin via Wyoming. From Laramie to Portland there was nothing but bad air quality because of 2018's huge wildland fires.

"Wildfires, as bad as it's been, it's not going to get better. Seeing these regional fire events, British Columbia, Washington, California...There was a giant plume of wildfire particle smoke along I-84, you couldn't see the hills 300 feet away. And there is no leadership in that area."

Not only do fires destroy habitats, a burned property leaves behind a hazmat site. And then there's the air quality.

"The air pollution kills people. There's going to be epi studies, showing tremendous increases in mortality, among the elderly, people with heart problems, respiratory problems... asthma deaths go up, ER visits go up..."

Corsi is an expert on fluid dynamics, pollution plumes and indoor air quality. He's most excited that a sensor that might have cost $10,000 five years ago is now about $200, and hopes that people will volunteer their data to the university to help track and predict health outcomes.


The university could make more of studying prevention and response to extraordinary events, such as earthquakes and manmade disasters.

"Portland is sitting on a giant fault, it runs right through the West Hills. When the big one hits there won't be homes on that hill any more..." he says gesturing toward some of the priciest real estate in town.

What he wants to see is sensors on every bridge and freeway, detecting vibrations and cracks. That can be pooled with data about air quality, municipal water pressure, and energy use.

Another area the software engineers in his school can specialize is in cybersecurity, particularly preventing big scale attacks on the electrical grid and water distribution systems.

"That's one area, and there's a void. We should be in that area," he says, bringing up lack of leadership again.

It's partly an institutional problem: experts are often scattered across a college, unaware of each other's work and potential synergies.

"Universities are having to become more businesslike to become more effective. I think it's a really good thing. It's not what they're used to doing, but (they should be) making those connections and reaching across campus to other disciplines."

Beyond smart

Corsi is quite aware that Portland lost out to Columbus, Ohio, in the Smart City Challenge two years ago. So did Austin. He wants to go beyond that and make Portland a brilliant city.

"I mean beyond smart. All the proposals I've reviewed underestimate our potential. In every field there's a revolution in sensor technology, and in our ability to transmit and analyze data, and develop complex system models that tie it all together. Much of smart cities has been pirated by transportation, because that's what they see and what they know, and we miss a lot of the other things we could be doing. There's no reason why we shouldn't be monitoring all major systems, monitoring cracks (in structures), traffic, energy flow, water pressure..."

Citizens could volunteer their blood pressure and heart rates stats to see if they are affected by other environmental changes — such as his favorite subject, air quality.

Corsi says the US is moving towards freeway communities: 11 percent of people live within 100 meters of a major freeway and 40 percent within 300 meters.

"We now know from the last five years that this has tremendous health impacts, such as dementia, stroke, autism, premature birth, low birth weight, and it's across social and economic lines. With infill there are a lot of people who have money who are being impacted."

He explains, "My point is brilliant cities let you monitor all these things. Then you can do something: changing zoning policies, putting advanced air filtration systems in public schools and senior homes. We don't do that now because we're not making those measurements."

The data would need to go a to a central database for analysis. But would Portlanders trust their government with it?

"A central database is complicated. You need to have people who understand data mining and analytics. And we have several of these folks in our computer science department," says Corsi.

He sees areas where PSU can help and get ahead.

"That's two areas where we can grow: data science and cyber security."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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