College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Twitter and cars don’t mix: students explore transportation topics for Freshman Research Initiative

Civil engineering freshman explore safety on the roads through one of Iowa State’s newest research programs

Bohle (far left) and his research team, with cell phones in hand, at the CCEE Freshman Research Initiative Poster Session (photo courtesy Peter Savolainen)
Bohle (far left) and his research team, with cell phones in hand, at the CCEE Freshman Research Initiative Poster Session (photo courtesy Peter Savolainen)

It’s not difficult to hook Carter Bohle on research. Just mention a driving simulator.

“Dr. Savolainen said one day in class that people have used the driving simulator before,” Bohle said. “That caught our attention right away. We were like, ‘We have to get our hands on the driving simulator!”

Bohle and fellow freshman were sitting in civil engineering learning community early this fall when Dr. Peter Savolainen walked in. An associate professor in the department of civil, construction and environmental engineering (CCEE), the transportation engineer was recruiting students for the Freshman Research Initiative, or FRI.

FRI is a chance for freshman to participate in authentic research during their first year at Iowa State University (ISU). Students design projects for course credit. The program currently has 13 research areas, or streams, from which freshman may pick topics. Bohle chose SETUP: Safe & Efficient Transportation, led by Savolainen.

Along with a team of fellow freshman researchers, he decided to explore the dangers of distracted driving. What would be the perfect distraction? Eating? Drinking coffee? Applying make-up?

“We’re not putting on make-up in the driving simulator,” Bohle emphatically recalled he and his fellow researchers deciding.

Cosmetics were out. The group landed instead on the dangers of driving while using a cell phone. Using a driving simulator housed at ISU’s Institute for Transportation (InTrans), the civil engineers set up their experiment. They would use social media, text, and make calls while conducting driving simulations.

“Social media was actually the highest distracting thing you could do while driving,” Bohle said. “It was by far the dangerous. It was even worse than texting.”

The group used Twitter as their social media of choice for the data collection.

“You have to swipe up, you have to scroll through it,” Bohle described the challenge of using the interactive social network while on the road. “At that time, you’re still trying to hold the wheel. And you are trying to read quickly.”

Bohle and his group presented the research findings at the CCEE FRI Poster Session, held Dec. 6 in Carver Hall. The group presented “Distracted Driving using Driving Simulator,” one of ten groups and nearly 40 students to present. Groups were critiqued by faculty and graduate students, with the top team winning an award. The event prepared the freshman for the ISU FRI Symposium in April 2017.

Savolainen says conducting research early in their college careers is crucial to engineers.

“One of the emphases of this program was to find effective ways you can get freshman involved on day one,” Savolainen said. “Research is becoming increasingly important – the ability to collect, synthesize, analyze data is becoming increasingly important.”

Bohle agrees 100 percent.

“I would definitely recommend FRI, because you get your foot in the door earlier,” he said.


Stay connected with ISU CCEE for the latest research opportunities, including a new environmental engineering research stream to be launched in Spring 2017. Visit, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn (Iowa State University Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering and ISU ConE). To get involved with FRI at ISU CCEE, contact Dr. Peter Savolainen.