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UNM hosts Railroader of the Mid-Century to promote careers in smart railroads

June 20, 2024 - by Kim Delker

photo: Students participating in the Smart Railroads program, riding the Rail Runner while collecting data.
Students participating in the Smart Railroads program, riding the Rail Runner while collecting data.

The past, current and future of the railroad industry converged at UNM this month for a two-day workshop as part of the “Railroader of the Mid-Century” program, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration.

The experience was part of a three-year Smart Railroads project, led by Fernando Moreu, associate professor in the Gerald May Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering. The project is a collaboration between Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), UNM, Florida A&M University and Stanford University.

The Smart Railroads project, which is in its second of three years, has the goal of attracting a new and diverse generation into STEM careers and specifically opportunities in the railroad industry. The program works with middle and high school students from around New Mexico, utilizing hands-on activities such as sensor building and field trips like train rides to both educate and fascinate students.

As part of the program, about 50 elementary, middle and high school students from central and southern New Mexico rode the New Mexico Rail Runner Express on June 12 for a unique learning experience. The group, which included about 30 adults, boarded Rail Runner at the downtown Albuquerque station to test their newly built Low-Cost Efficient Wireless Intelligent Sensors (LEWIS sensors) they developed in the two-day workshop. Using the sensors and Google Chromebooks, the students took measurements of the train’s position and acceleration, learning how it applies to railroad safety technology.

“It’s a school on wheels,” Moreu said.

Participants learned from the FRA, retired railroad workers, engineers and university professors. They also participated in hands-on STEM activities led by UNM graduate and undergraduate students, including 3D printing, building a solar car, and building 12 of the LEWIS sensors that the students used in the Rail Runner.

“In the workshop, students were able to learn about engineering opportunities as they apply to the railroad, including research, development, innovation, tracking, sensors and artificial intelligence,” said Hugh Thompson, program director for the FRA, who presented at the workshop and rode the train with the students.

After boarding the train, the students rode to downtown Bernalillo, using their LEWIS sensors to track data along the way. Mahsa Sanei, a Ph.D. student in engineering at UNM who spearheads the workshop, has found that interest in this activity has escalated since they started their project in 2022.

“This was the moment that the participants were most excited about,” Moreu said. “For the majority of the kids and many of the parents it was their first time on the train.”

Students also tracked data on their return trip to Albuquerque.

“By doing this, they were able to understand engineering first hand because the students are the ones who built the sensors and they can see the data, the train and the sensors together while taking the train,” Moreu said.

Moreu’s Smart Management of Infrastructure Laboratory (SMILab) works in collaboration with the Engineering Student Success Center on the activities, which is also part of the Engineering Summer Academy. A team from Las Cruces and El Paso participated under the sponsorship of Borderland Family Ties and Vanessa Knox. Those interested in learning more about the program can contact Moreu at