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Bringing Precast Concrete to Classrooms

When it comes to a traditional civil engineering curriculum, precast concrete is commonly the last lecture in a reinforced concrete class. Graduating civil engineering students typically have minimal exposure to precast concrete design, production, and construction during their programs. This creates a significant lack of knowledge among entry-level civil engineers who join the workforce. If asked to design a prestressed girder or a precast pipe, most civil engineers have to learn the design procedures themselves. Idaho State University (ISU) wants this trend to change and is leading the way. This article provides an overview of the precast design studio at ISU, the needs for such curriculum in today’s world, creative ways to introduce precast concrete in the civil engineering curriculum, hands-on and effective classroom and lab activities for students, and the long-term benefit of having students who can identify the versatility of precast concrete before they join the industry.

Mustafa Mashal and Bruce Savage, Idaho State University, Pocatello, Idaho, United States


In 2019, the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI) Foundation [1] and the National Precast Concrete Association (NPCA) Foundation [2] joined forces to sponsor a unique curriculum called “Precast Concrete Design Studio” at ISU for four years and to change the status quo in precast concrete curriculum. The Precast Concrete Engineering Studio (CE 4499/5599) at ISU is the only joint PCI/NPCA Foundations studio in the United States. The Studio is focused on transportation precast concrete products such as precast bridges, culverts, and pipes. Faculty coordinators for the Studio at ISU are Dr. Mustafa Mashal, Associate Professor, and Dr. Bruce Savage, Professor and Chair, from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at ISU.

The class covered both precast bridges and culverts. However, more emphasis was put on the precast culverts and pipes. Due to the global pandemic, class lectures were conducted in a HyFlex manner as per ISU’s guidelines. This was a hybrid model where students can be present in the room or attend synchronously online via WebRTC. Travel outside the campus was restricted due to the pandemic so the students could not travel to a nearby precast plant. The class provided a virtual tour of a precast plant for both PCI and NPCA products. In addition, most of the students in the Studio were able to see samples of full-scale PCI and NPCA products in the Civil Engineering Large-Scale Laboratory (CELL) which is an outdoor facility at ISU that has been used for a different project (Fig. 1). The CELL has a variety of precast products that can be used as demonstration pieces.

Industry Champions from across the United States support and actively participate in the Studio. These professionals represent private and public entities, including the Idaho Transportation Department. Some of the students who took the Studio ended up working for the Industry Champions upon graduation.

Studio Activities

The content of the Studio is different than a traditional civil engineering class. It includes topics and opportunities such as structural and hydraulic design, hands-on work in the laboratories, large-scale structural testing, traveling to precast concrete yards and production facilities, listening to presentations from professionals in the industry, and participation in precast concrete competitions at the national level. These activities are described in the following sections.

Class Lectures

Class lectures consist of 35-40% of the course activities. The class does have pre-requisites such as Fluid Mechanics and Reinforced Concrete Design. Lectures cover introduction to precast concrete and materials, flexural and shear design of precast/prestressed girders, slabs, hydraulic design of culverts/bridges, and design of concrete pipes.

Tour of Precast Yards and Precast Structures

In-person and virtual visits are an important activity of the Studio where students get to observe and learn about how precast elements and structures are built. Students get to tour one to two actual precast concrete yards (Fig. 2). It is preferred to arrange the tours on days where an actual project is being cast at the precast yard. Also, the plants are selected to include precast plants that produce PCI and NPCA products (e.g. above the ground and under the ground precast components). The tours are supplemented with a visit to an actual precast concrete structure.


Guest Speakers

The Studio hosted many guest speakers from the precast and bridge industry from across the United States in the first Studio in 2019. For the second Studio in 2020, this was held long-distance due to travel restrictions imposed by the global pandemic. The speakers presented practical lectures on a variety of topics including the precast concrete for construction of resilient structures; wildlife crossings; durability and water-proofing; design and fabrication of underground precast products; precast segmental bridge construction; cement production and types; bridge bearings; small classroom activities; and formlining techniques.

Laboratory Work

The Studio typically includes five to seven laboratory sessions. These sessions are focused on students doing hands-on work to mix concrete, build their own concrete samples, and subsequently testing them (Fig. 3). Laboratory tests included concrete slump testing, compressive strength, tensile testing, modulus of rupture, freeze/thaw test for durability, three-edge bearing testing of a full-scale reinforced concrete pipe (Fig. 4), and flume testing of hydraulics of culverts using the state-of-the-art laboratories at ISU.

Student Membership and National Competitions

On the first day of the Studio, all students sign up for the PCI and NPCA Student memberships. PCI and NPCA offer significant technical resources in precast concrete as well as potential scholarships for students. Students are encouraged to participate in the national competitions organized by the PCI and NPCA. For instance, two teams of students from the Studio signed up for the PCI and NPCA Competitions in 2019. A team of six students participated in the 2019/2020 PCI Big Beam competition which came 2nd in the nation. Another team of four students was selected as a finalist in the 2020 NPCA Competition and came third in the nation. One other student from the Studio participated as an alternate candidate in the 2020 Project Precast organized by the PCI Foundation. Funding was provided by the NPCA and PCI Foundation for the faculty and several students in the Studio to attend professional conferences such as the PCI Convention, NPCA Convention, Precast Show, and PCI Committee Days and National Bridge Conference. Several students from the Studio applied for scholarship opportunities through NPCA. 


The traditional civil engineering curriculum is strengthened by the inclusion of novel and practical courses such as the Studio where academics partners with industry. Such courses help students in many ways such as hands-on work and getting exposed to real-life projects and construction technologies. The Studio at ISU is an example of the successful implementation of new curriculum in precast concrete. Students overwhelmingly enjoyed the class and some were even inspired to join the precast industry upon graduation. The faculty at ISU are planning to make the Studio a permanent class in the civil engineering curriculum.


The authors are grateful for financial and other support from the PCI and NPCA Foundations. In addition, the Studio greatly appreciates the help from the Industry Champions in the United States. The assistance provided by the College of Science and Engineering as well as the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Idaho State University with the curriculum is acknowledged. Furthermore, the authors are thankful for the opportunity from CPI Worldwide to publish their perspective on a Studio type curriculum in precast concrete education.

About the authors

Mustafa Mashal is an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Idaho State University in the United States. He obtained his PhD, Masters, and Bachelors in Civil Engineering with a focus on Structural and Earthquake Engineering from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, University at Buffalo-State University of New York in the United States, and Kabul University in Afghanistan, respectively. His research interests include precast concrete, earthquake engineering, low damage seismic design, and large-scale experimental testing. mashmust@isu.edu

Bruce Savage is a Professor and Chair in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Idaho State University in the United States. He obtained his PhD, Masters, and Bachelors in Civil Engineering with a focus on Water Resources Engineering from Utah State University in the United States. His research interests include precast concrete, water resources, computational fluid dynamics, and large-scale experimental testing. savabruc@isu.edu



[1] Precast/Prestressed Concrete Insititue Foundation, https://www.pci-foundation.org/
[2] National Precast Concrete Association Foundation, https://precast.org/foundation/

CPi worldwide journals are trade journals for the concrete and precast concrete industry that are published in 10 different language editions in more than 170 countries. These trade journals, with their practical editorial reporting on research, production and applications, are specifically addressing the decision makers of the concrete and precast concrete industry.

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