A Civil Engineer’s Body of Knowledge

September 3, 2009

According to a diverse group of civil engineers who met to discuss the future of the profession, by the year 2025 a civil engineer will be:

Entrusted by society to create a sustainable world and enhance the global quality of life.  Civil engineers serve competently, collaboratively, and ethically as master: planners, designers, constructors… stewards of the natural environment… innovators… managers of risk and uncertainty caused by natural events and other threats, and leaders in decisions shaping public environmental and infrastructure policy.

Wow!  That’s a really tough charge.  The statement is a great rallying cry for the importance and prestige of civil engineers, but can one realistically master so many subjects?  In 2008, an ASCE committee was tasked with determining the Body of Knowledge necessary to meet these ideals.

The resulting document spells out 24 different areas for prospective professionals to study.  Subjects like math, mechanics, and technical specialization are common to most traditional degree programs.  However, the committee suggested many new topics that weren’t even on the radar when I was in school.  10 Sustainability – Analyze systems of engineered works for sustainable performance; 17 – Public Policy – Apply process techniques to simple problems related to civil engineering works; and 19 – Analyze engineering works and services in order to function at a basic level in a global context.

Collectively, the new Body of Knowledge asks engineers to, “master more mathematics, natural sciences, and engineering science fundamentals; maintain technical breadth; acquire broader exposure to the humanities and social sciences; and achieve greater specialization.”

Colleges already struggle to integrate practical tools and procedures used by industry into the curriculum.  How do you fit all of these new subject areas into a degree program?  For one, engineering students should get used to the idea of going on to pursue a master’s degree.  More on the job training and exploratory learning is also suggested.  However, the authors of the Body of Knowledge purposefully want to raise the bar. More responsibility is placed on students and young engineers to actively seek education in these competencies.

Fortunately, some advice is given.  Take advantage of on-campus resources and challenges like the concrete canoe and steel bridge.  Study abroad.   Engage in conversations about sustainability, building information modeling and other new topics that are becoming more important in the industry.  Volunteer for community and professional organizations.  Demand feedback and diverse project assignments from teachers and employers.

Most importantly, take charge of your future.  Six months after starting my first job, I did not feel that I was getting the experience I needed to meet my career goals.  Throughout 18 years of school, someone had always told me what the next step would be.  However, at that point, it was entirely up to me make a move that would broaden my body of knowledge.  Be ready for that decision.  If you choose to continue learning throughout your career, then it’s likely that you will fully meet the charge for the civil engineer of 2025.

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