Point of Beginning

A Summer of Surveying

September 1, 2006
Bryan Olesek, survey supervisor, records data as Patty Solecki operates the Nikon NPL-362 total station.


Photos by Courtney Fathers

When Patty Solecki returned to Albion College in southern Michigan last month to start her junior year, she had a different story to tell about what she did over her summer vacation. While many of her peers were waiting on tables, flipping burgers and stocking merchandise, Solecki spent the summer working on a survey crew. It wasn't something she ever expected to do, but the experience will be invaluable for her future.

When looking for a job to occupy the summer between her sophomore and junior years, Solecki initially thought of landscaping because she'd done that the year before. She applied for work through her hometown city of Troy, a northern suburb of Detroit. "I thought I would cut grass and plant flowers for the Parks & Recreation Department," Solecki says. Instead, the hiring manager noted in her interview that she was considering a career in civil engineering and asked if she was interested in summer openings in the city's Engineering Department. Before the interview ended, Solecki was signed up for a real-world experience as a summer laborer on a survey crew.

The surveying crew for the city of Troy, Mich., worked on a stream embankment restoration project at Sylvan Glen Golf Course.

From the Dorms to the Field

When she finished her winter semester in May, Solecki headed home and immediately started working 40 hours a week. Not only was it her first experience surveying, it was also her first experience working a full-time job. One of the hardest things for her to adjust to was the early-morning start to the workday, familiar to most surveyors. Like many college students, Solecki thought waking up at 6:15 a.m. was unheard of. "I'm not a morning person," she says. But she quickly realized that starting early had at least one great benefit-finishing early.

Adjusting to the workload and the work itself took her some time as well. Fortunately for Solecki, the city's patient surveying staff has worked with many college students over the years. Bryan Olesek, survey supervisor, says he remembers working at different places to gain experience while he was in school. "I can relate to our summer help, so I'm more flexible with them," he says.

The summer opening on the city's survey crew always goes to a student from Troy who is interested in engineering, no matter what the specific discipline. "When we find these particular students [who] are looking for work, we try to take them into our department to make them more knowedgeable [by showing] them another field available to them," Olesek says. "Patty is one of the first students whose interest is similar to the field of land surveying because she wants to go into civil engineering."

In addition to Olesek, Solecki also worked with George Ballard, PS, the head land surveyor for Troy's Engineering Department, and Bill Sanders, Troy's crew chief. Sanders says that it is a challenge to work with new college students every summer. "I don't fancy myself as being a great teacher," he says, "but I've learned a little to pass along from my 20 years in the field."

Sanders continues, "Patty's a good kid, and it helps that she's got a little background because of her interest in civil engineering. She never did any surveying before this summer, so it's taken a little while for her to learn the "˜language' [of surveying]." After only a month of working for the city, though, Solecki was forced to step up her role when its field crew of three dropped to a crew of two. A long-time city surveyor retired at the end of May, so Sanders and Solecki made up the two-person crew from June through August.

Solecki was trained on-the-fly and had to quickly learn to operate the instruments used for the bulk of the crew's topographic surveying tasks.

Rising to the Challenge

"When only Patty and Bill are in the field, I feel that she's very vital because she's part of a two-person crew," Olesek says. "If one person doesn't show up, it's harder for the other person to work. Patty is dedicated and knows how to be part of a team."

Working on a two-person crew did not allow Solecki any time to slack off. She had to develop her physical and mental capabilities to be an asset in the field. "Physically, the hardest thing I've had to do is lift up the lids of catchbasins with a hook. And they're heavy," she says. On one project on a dirt road, Solecki had to chisel out dirt to find the manholes before taking measurements of them.

Even more taxing is the mental exertion surveying requires. "It's not mindless," Solecki says. "Every day you have things you have to think about. You have to be alert." She was able to learn a lot on-the-fly, but had to remember what she learned. On the two-person crew, Solecki served as instrument person while Sanders worked the rod. "Basically, I set up the instrument and the backsight," Solecki says. She learned how to operate all of the city's surveying equipment, including the Nikon (Tripod Data Systems, Corvallis, Ore.) NPL-362 total station, the robotic Trimble (Sunnyvale, Calif.) 5600 total station, the Trimble 5700 GPS receivers and the Trimble TSC1 data collector. And she can use a tape and a chaining pin, too, when the situation calls for it. "Depending on what we're doing, sometimes it's a lot easier to put a chaining pin in the ground and pull tape for a job," she says. "It can be a lot quicker than pulling out the instrument and legs and leveling it."

"When I first started, I just did simple things," Solecki says. "Then when they trained me on how to do certain [tasks], I tried to learn well enough so I could be more useful and helpful on a job." Plus, there was always the math she found herself doing in her head. "With her math background," Olesek says, "we can keep her on her toes with all the trigonometry we deal with."

Solecki and Olesek set up the instrument under the supervision of George Ballard, PS.

Working for the City

Solecki gained a great education about working for a municipal government from her coworkers in the Engineering Department. Olesek has been working for the city of Troy since 1999, and he is proud of the fact that Troy supports its own surveying staff. The city only encompasses 34.3 square miles, and of that, 793.5 acres are owned by the city. "Most cities this size contract out their survey work or are affiliated with a private surveying firm," he says. But Troy is home to a rapidly developing business community and a growing residential community, so it can afford to fully support its small surveying division. The majority of the city's surveying work is topographic surveying for engineering design and construction stakeout.

In addition, the city's survey crew also performs some boundary surveying to resolve disputes between residents and the city. Olesek occasionally receives E-mails from Troy City Hall listing resident complaints; he assigns his crew research tasks to resolve the issues. "It's mostly complaints about dead trees that need to be removed. If it's on city property, the city will remove it," Solecki says.

Interacting with the city's private residents was an eye-opening experience for Solecki. "We don't spend a lot of time on people's property," she says, adding with a smile, "they don't like that." She also found that residents were curious about what she was working on near their homes, and she needed to courteously respond to them. When the residents came out and questioned her, she explained that she was digging for the iron that represents the property corner. "We don't go knocking on doors," Solecki says, "but if they come out and talk to us, we'll give them the 4-1-1 on what's going on."

Solecki has also educated her family, friends and acquaintances about surveying from her summer experience. "People ask me questions about my job all the time," Solecki says. "They don't know what the heck I do. I tell them, "˜If you ever see those people by the side of the road that look like they're taking pictures-that's what I do. Except they're not cameras; they're instruments. And I'm not taking pictures; I'm taking measurements.'"

Seeing Results

One of the projects Solecki worked on this summer was a stream embankment restoration at Sylvan Glen, one of Troy's two municipal golf courses. The Engineering Department was granted funds to redesign an eroding area of the golf course, putting in wetlands, retaining walls and new pedestrian bridges.

In another area of Troy, Solecki worked extensively on two dirt roads where the city put in all-new storm structures. "The interesting part about it is that I've been working on those two streets since [the project] started," Solecki says. "We started by staking the right of way, then put in all the offsets for the catchbasins and the manholes, and then staked the edge of the road so they can put in the new ditches. By the time they're done, I will have helped with every part of getting this road done."

According to Olesek, nothing had been started on the project before Solecki started working on it this summer. "Now, to see the finished project all of a sudden and to be able to say she was a part of it-that's a gratifying experience," he says.

Bill Sanders, crew chief, works the rod from his position on a retaining wall built to combat erosion.

Learning What Matters Most

As she worked in the field, Solecki learned many lessons about safety from her coworkers. "With everything we do, Bill and Brian are always like, "˜Safety is the biggest thing!'" Solecki says. Solecki attended two safety orientation programs at the beginning of her summer employment, but she says she learned a lot more in the field. "On a daily basis, Bill's teaching her out there," Olesek says, noting that it's important for surveyors to be aware of traffic in Troy's urban environment.

In addition to safety, Troy's surveyors also taught Solecki about the need for accuracy in every aspect of their job. "It's about taking your time and recognizing that everything we do is critical to the project," Olesek says.

"I learned how much work and preparation goes into [these projects]," Solecki says. "Before, I didn't realize what goes into making a road, or repaving, or putting [storm structures] in."

Looking Down the Road

As her partner on the two-person crew, Sanders says that the challenge of working with a college student like Solecki is always worth it by the end of the summer. He is rewarded by being able to see what the student learned and accomplished after only a few months in the field.

Solecki is grateful she had a summer job that taught her so much of what she will need to know in her future career. "For me, since civil engineering is what I aspire to do, it's useful to get this field experience and see what goes on for this department of the city," she says. Surveying for a summer certainly gave her a lot of insight into measuring in the field for engineering design. "When Patty gets to be a civil engineer, she'll understand what's going on out there in the field and how the job works," Olesek says.