Date of Award

January 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Civil and Environmental Engineering


Cliff I. Davidson


concept inventory, engineering education, green infrastructure, social-ecological system, stormwater management, technology adoption

Subject Categories



Green infrastructure has been endorsed by many practitioners and organizations as a more sustainable approach to stormwater management. Decisions on how to best design municipal green infrastructure systems can be complicated by factors such as uncertainties about the performance and public acceptance of particular technologies. Thus, deciding how to design sustainable stormwater management systems requires engineers not only to reflect upon the fundamental principles used to conceptualize their designs, but also to consider how a broad array of social, economic, and environmental factors both influence and are influenced by their work.

This thesis examines factors that influence the design and adoption of sustainable civil infrastructure systems in two research areas: (1) municipal stormwater management decisions in the United States, and (2) student understanding of engineering design principles. The objective of this thesis is to identify elements of engineering design and related decision-making processes that can provide engineers, stormwater management stakeholders, and engineering educators with lessons and tools that can advance the sustainable development of stormwater management systems.

One challenge to understanding how particular factors may lead to sustainable outcomes is devising a tractable way to organize and document them. Using observations from national meetings and an extensive literature review, I develop a social-ecological framework for identifying factors that condition the adoption of green infrastructure technologies by stormwater management authorities. Findings from this work demonstrate a need to more fully develop robust descriptions of technological attributes within a social-ecological framework for urban stormwater systems, particularly for technology decision-making activities such as green infrastructure adoption.

Understanding past outcomes of engineering planning within a particular context can provide useful insight for future decision-making. I conduct a case study on the evolution of stormwater management planning in Onondaga County, New York between 1998 and 2009, in which plans for certain unpopular gray infrastructure technologies were eventually replaced in part by a large-scale green infrastructure program. I find that the adoption of this program was driven by an alignment of several sociopolitical factors, including the presence of a policy entrepreneurship coalition in support of alternative stormwater management plans, the election of a key political official who acknowledged the needs of local stakeholders, and a shift in mindset of local and national officials as to what technologies are effective for stormwater management.

A growing number of U.S. cities are adopting green infrastructure programs for stormwater management, particularly for combined sewer overflow mitigation. Viewing green infrastructure program adoption in combined sewer communities as a policy innovation, I develop an empirical model to differentiate factors associated with a sewer management authority’s binary decision to adopt or not adopt a large-scale green infrastructure program, and factors associated with decisions related to the extent of planned program implementation. This study finds that the binary decision to adopt a municipal green infrastructure program for combined sewer overflow management is largely driven by municipal population size and precipitation characteristics, while the extent of program implementation is also driven by socioeconomic characteristics of municipal residents and the amount of total capital needs required to achieve combined sewer overflow compliance.

Engineers must be able to mathematically model the complexities of fundamental physical processes within real systems, such as green infrastructure systems for stormwater management. Many engineering processes are built upon fundamental concepts of mass and energy balances, in which mathematical models are used to analyze rates of change and accumulated quantities across system boundaries of interest. The Rate and Accumulation Concept Inventory (RACI) is an assessment tool that I developed to measure students’ mathematical and physical understandings of such concepts. I use data from an administration of the RACI (N=305) to assess evidence of the tool’s validity and reliability through structural equation modeling and multidimensional item response theory. Validity and reliability evidence indicates that the RACI can appropriately be used to measure students’ overall understanding of rate and accumulation processes.

Case-based teaching methods have been suggested as a best practice for introducing students to ethical decision-making scenarios. By sensitizing future engineers to the concerns of stakeholders who are impacted by engineering decisions, educators can better prepare them to create designs that address social outcome criteria such as welfare and justice. Using case study findings related to stakeholder concerns and engineering decisions for stormwater management planning in Onondaga County, I develop a case-based teaching module on engineering decision-making for use in undergraduate civil and environmental engineering courses. Assessments from three years of module implementation demonstrate that the module can be used to meet multiple learning objectives and enhance student understanding of stakeholder engagement principles.


Open Access

Included in

Engineering Commons