Fadi Karaa, Master of the Engineering Megaproject, is a Monumental Teacher as Well

Fadi Karaa, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is a master of the megaproject. Over the past couple of decades he has worked on such large and complex infrastructure systems as deteriorating wastewater pipes at military bases, the “Big Dig” that rerouted Boston’s central artery into an underground tunnel, and the mapping of vast underground fiber-optic networks.

Now the co-principal investigator of a post-Hurricane Sandy flood protection project, Karaa is leading a multidisciplinary team of engineers developing resiliency plans for a low-lying region of New Jersey along the Hackensack River that is under growing threat from rising seas and increasingly violent storms.

“We are creating a comprehensive, multi-hazard approach to optimizing the region’s infrastructure that identifies all risks, from storm surges, to massive rainfall, to dam breaks, and then assesses resources and quantifies the amount of damage prevention that various solutions would yield. We take into account collateral damage, such as lost productivity, and we rank alternatives,” he explains. “We are taking a scientific approach to decision-making and developing a model for assessing risk and proposing solutions that we hope will be widely applicable.”

Team members include John Schuring, Robert Dresnack, and Walter Konon, all professors in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, among other NJIT experts.

Karaa’s students say that he is also unusually adept at teaching others how to analyze and plan complex projects with his gift for bringing fundamental principles of engineering and project management to life with rich detail from a deep reservoir of case studies. So it came as no surprise to veterans of his courses that he was awarded the Newark College of Engineering (NCE) Excellence in Teaching award earlier this year for his illuminating lectures and valuable feedback on their work.

Karaa’s classes “make a real impact,” notes an admiring Yazdan Majdi Ph.D. ’13, a structural engineer for Arup, the global engineering and project management firm, who is working as part of the design team of the Second Avenue subway in Manhattan.

“Professor Karaa is an incredibly bright and knowledgeable teacher with an innovative method that links course material to real engineering cases in such a compelling way. His lectures are so well formulated and contain such dense and informative detail that they impress every student,” Yazdan adds.

“His lectures were so much better and interesting than the assigned textbook. He also taught us important project management tricks that allow us to do things more efficiently,” notes Alex Salazar ’11, who earned a master’s degree in structural engineering from Princeton University after graduating from NJIT and now works for Thornton Tomasetti, the global engineering firm, in various alteration and tenant projects for the Empire State Building.

“The concepts I learned in his civil engineering class were outside of my area of mastery, but I now use them on a daily basis for coordination within the design team and project management purposes, including how to analyze a project using the Critical Path Method (CPM), which is a technique for scheduling a set of project activities and modeling their interdependencies. I’m now working on multidisciplinary teams that include architects, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and others, and I really needed to have this knowledge.”

Karaa practices – and teaches – a systematic approach to infrastructure challenges that looks beyond solving the immediate problem, such as a dam at risk of failure, toward creating a model that could be applied, for example, toward assessing, predicting, and managing dam safety more generally.

He is now immersed in a state-funded project to come up with measures for flood mitigation in the hard-hit Hackensack/Moonachie/Little Ferry area of New Jersey, which is less than two feet above sea level and sits on the state’s environmental watch list. He and the rest of the team are evaluating the area’s exposure to all flood hazards, including information about past storms and a possible dam break, among more obvious threats, and recommending a cost-effective portfolio of flood mitigation measures, from capital improvements, to regulatory proposals, to redundancy measures such as the means to provide power back-up for pumping stations.

“Flooding is quite complex, and there’s no such thing as a risk-free situation – a five-foot berm cannot protect against a nine-foot wave, for example – so the solution must take that into account. Throughout the region, we are assessing each town’s vulnerabilities, while recognizing that in some cases we will be proposing management solutions where we can’t entirely protect. These responses may range from inland flood barriers along the river bank, to forming deeper, wider ditches, to creating places for temporary storage,” he says, adding, “The East Coast is so developed it is essentially a parking lot, with clogged waterways in need of clearing and expansion and a finite number of open spaces for flood water to go.”

Similarly, in his work on aging infrastructure, Karaa evaluates vulnerable systems at a holistic level and develops forecasting models that incorporate a range of factors such as environmental change, the corrosiveness of the soil, and surrounding development.

With the growing complexity of these management problems in mind, he was instrumental in helping to establish a master’s program in Critical Infrastructure Systems in 2008 to prepare students to take on difficult challenges in sectors ranging from utility systems, to transportation networks, to banking and public health infrastructure.

“Along with our research, students are our most important product,” Karaa says, adding that he is pleased to see some of NJIT’s top undergraduate students extend their NJIT education by enrolling in the program. “We are building a foundation of expertise here by training these committed students to become the next cadre of professionals able to model infrastructure risk, prioritize resources, and come up with effective engineering, management and systems solutions.”