Senior project becomes campground (and a career)

April 15, 2015
I AM UAA: Sarah Mobley, B.S. Civil Engineering '11, designed a visitor's center for Alaska State Parks during her senior design project. A few years later, she was helming the largest engineering project in State Parks history, implementing the designs of her UAA classmates (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage).

I AM UAA: Sarah Mobley, B.S. Civil Engineering ’11, led Phase I of the largest engineering project in Alaska State Parks history. The campground facilities were designed by her and her classmates as part of their senior project at UAA. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

After a long semester, most students just move their class projects into a hard drive folder and move on to what’s next. Occasionally, though, an assignment hangs on.

For her senior design project, civil engineering alumna Sarah Mobley designed a visitor’s center for Denali State Park. At the time, it was just a homework assignment. Several years later, though, Sarah was spending entire summers in the mountains overseeing the designs she and her classmates had proposed while at UAA. As a project engineer for Alaska State Parks, she turned a course assignment into a career.

Sarah’s story at Alaska State Parks starts in 2005, when she signed on as an intern, and it ends today—April 15, her last day in the office. After nearly a decade, she’s ready to focus on her next big goal—earning a doctorate in civil engineering at University of South Florida.

She’s never even been to Florida, but she’s optimistic for the big move south. “This winter’s made it pretty easy,” she joked, crediting the balmy winter for preparing her well.

The K’esugi Ken campground is designed to highlight the epic views of Denali's southern side (Photo by Emily Angel, Alaska State Parks).

The K’esugi Ken campground, designed by UAA students, highlights the epic views of Denali’s southern side. (Photo by Emily Angel, Alaska State Parks)

Exterior design

Each year, the College of Engineering hands their civil engineering students an assignment with real-world implications. Interim Dean Bart Quimby taught Sarah’s senior design course and he had the class conduct a feasibility study for Alaska State Parks. Students worked in small groups—roads, trail design, safety permitting, etc.—to tackle the larger task of designing an entire campground. Sarah was the lead for the visitor’s center design. A few years later, she was the lead for the entire project.

Alaska State Parks currently has eight engineers supervising projects statewide. The projects are generally on the smaller end—upgrading a boat dock here, repairing a trail system there. However, the Parks boast one square mile of land per Alaska resident, and Sarah often juggled eight to 10 projects simultaneously across the state. One winter she spent a few months in Fairbanks surveying a channel dredging project, another season she was upgrading facilities at Kodiak’s Fort Abercrombie.

Her biggest project, though, was the result of her senior design project.

"Volkswagon-sized boulders" were one of many challenges when building the access road into new K’esugi Ken campground (Photo by Sarah Mobley, Alaska State Parks).

The two-mile access road in the mountains was no easy task, as the site featured glacial soils and “Volkswagon-sized boulders.” (Photo by Sarah Mobley, Alaska State Parks)

Opening a door to Denali

The K’esugi Ken campground is the largest state parks project ever completed, and Sarah has served as its lead engineer. The master plan for the project includes several unique features—notably, the first visitor’s center in the parks. Additionally, the landscape provides its fair share of challenges. It is a mountain, after all, and the new access road required cuts of up to 28 feet into glacial soils. “Glaciers just leave whatever they want—you never know what you’re getting into,” Sarah said, citing the presence of rushing sandy streams and boulders the size of Volkswagons at the site. “It was a geological experience.”

Over the past two summers, Sarah spent a combined seven months in a nearby cabin supervising the construction process for phase I, which included a two-mile access road and 32 pull-in campsites. “A large part of this project was bringing in electricity from Talkeetna all the way up to mile 135, so that’s 35 miles of upgraded electricity to all those communities,” Sarah noted, citing the enhancements to towns along the way, like Trapper Creek.

The first phase of Sarah's project included a two-mile access road, trailheads and 32 pull-in campsites (Map courtesy of Sarah Mobley, Alaska State Parks).

The first phase of Sarah’s project included a two-mile access road, trailheads and 32 pull-in campsites. (Map courtesy of Sarah Mobley, Alaska State Parks)

Sarah designed the projects for future phases as well, but won’t be on site to see them completed. The next additions include a 10-lot walk-in camping area and several cabins. The last part of the plan even calls for a six-mile road to the first-ever visitor’s center in Alaska State Parks. The center is still years away, but will include guides (eventually), a coffee shop (potentially) and epic views of Denali (most definitely). “The views from the national park are all from the north side,” Sarah explained. “From the south side you’re able to see Foraker and you’re able to see Moose’s Tooth and the range is just gorgeous from this side.”

Taking her talents to South Florida

But Sarah will have to check out the finished project some other time. Her military husband has been reassigned to teach ROTC at University of Tampa, and Sarah will be starting her doctorate in civil engineering at University of South Florida. After a decade in the field, she plans to become a civil engineering professor.

A look at the K’esugi Ken campground facilities designed by UAA civil engineering students (Photo by Emily Angel, Alaska State Parks).

Sarah’s off to Florida for a Ph.D., leaving the next phase of the K’esugi Ken campground in the hands of her State Park colleagues. (Photo by Emily Angel, Alaska State Parks)

Her interest in education stems from her outreach work in Anchorage. Men still outnumber women in engineering careers, and Sarah has worked with various programs to encourage young girls to seek STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, math). She’s worked consistently with the Anchorage Girl Scouts and recently spoke at Dimond High School for a Women in Engineering Day.

Florida will be quite an adjustment, though, and not just in terms of culture and climate. “There are some holes in my coursework that I need to make up before I get there,” Sarah acknowledged—and she means that literally. “Sinkholes,” she added. “Specifically I need to learn about sinkholes.”

With an undergrad past in glacial soils, and a graduate future in the bayous and swamps of south Florida, she’ll certainly be well rounded.

“I’ll have a very diverse geotechnical background,” she laughed.


Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

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