Why did I have to take so many environmental classes?

March 10, 2015

Civil engineering is a uniquely broad field. Should CEE curriculum eschew the broad basis for more coursework in discipline? My position has evolved.

This past week students from the University of Michigan visited Chicago to tour construction sites and meet with alumni. I’ve participated in this annual event since I was a student. I felt it was beneficial for me to learn how the profession is really practiced. The participating alumni are always very outspoken about the skills and attitudes required to succeed.

This year we added a discussion component to the alumni networking evening. We were asked to consider what the profession would look like in 2025 and what skills would need to be taught in order to be well prepared for this future. Some groups focused on the disruptive technologies that may change infrastructure as we know it – like driverless cars and networked appliances. We also had the requisite debate about political forces pulling the rug out from the needed infrastructure investments. Turning the discussion to education needs revealed an expected contradiction: civil engineers need both a broader background and greater depth in technical areas.

If you’ve ever engaged in a similar discussion at your university or ASCE meeting, perhaps prompted by the ASCE’s Vision 2025, you’ve probably come to the same conundrum. How do you achieve both breadth and depth in a finite number of credit hours?

Some have advocated that a master’s degree be required for licensure. But again, in such a broad field, one size does not fit all. Construction managers would rather hire undergraduates who are eager to gain field experience. Structural engineers seek master’s graduates who have taken more design courses. A Ph.D. on the other hand is seen by both professionals as a degree leading to a career in academia and does not advantage candidates seeking practical work.

The civil engineering degree remains a big tent including construction, geotechnical, structural, transportation, environmental and water resources engineering and more. Each discipline is worthy of it’s own degree program, and yet we all coexist within the civil and environmental engineering degree.

One of the faculty participants in our round table discussion suggested that it’s the clients that link the profession together. By that, I assume he meant the public entities that employ many civil engineers directly or as consultants and builders. But I’d argue that our client base is equally as diverse as our talents. Within my business unit, in my structural consultancy, we work for architects, developers, contractors, property managers, institutional owners, private building owners, metal fabricators, inventors, and artists. The projects and personalities are likewise varied.

I would argue that it’s the diversity of our work – the jack-of-all-trades engineering degree – that is the strength of the profession. Property owners of any kind are likely to need the service of a civil engineer at some point. It’s no wonder then that some civil engineering companies have tens of thousands of employees to cater to any engineering need of their clients.

Diversity can be achieved by hiring thousands of specialists or seeking multifaceted employees. Either way, the ability to understand a broad array of engineering problems is important. And though we often think that the world has so changed that the old role of master builder is no longer relevant, in fact the person who can speak competently to many fields is extremely valuable. I see this in my own practice. Today, though I’m a structural engineer, I had to run a meeting devoted to electrical routing (admittedly not in the CEE degree). After lunch, I switched hats, and we discussed architectural coordination for ADA compliant ramping and drainage around landscaping. All the while, I assisted as a technical translator for the contractor frantically trying to assess the ratcheting cost of the project.

Yeah, I complained to my department chair that I had to take too many environmental classes in my undergraduate degree. I also chaffed at the inclusion of circuitry on the Fundamentals of Engineering exam. I could have used more courses in structural design – masonry and wood design stick out. But I knew enough about basic structural principles to pick up different materials in the field. Likewise, I couldn’t lay out a working circuit board today, but I can apply the concept of resistance in series or parallel to wall insulation and thermal bridging. I also know that electrical resistance builds over distance, and that requires larger wire. I could not have guessed that so many engineering courses outside my chosen discipline would help me more than 10 years after my career began.

So maybe the civil engineer degree doesn’t need so much an overhaul as we anticipated when planning the discussion session. Maybe we actually need more interaction with outside points of view. Maybe we need more practice communicating with future clients and collaborators. My recommendation for the curriculum of 2025 is to keep the course diversity but add more group work with architects and other engineers. They’ll thank me in 2035.

  • Melissa Butcher, EI

    I don’t entirely agree with the statement, “A PhD on the other hand is seen by both professionals as a degree leading to a career in academia and does not advantage candidates seeking practical work.” Academia is very practical for people who want to do research and to teach the next generation of STEM thinkers. I also know several professionals with PhDs who have extremely successful careers outside of academia – as SMEs in consulting, for example.

    However, I do agree with the general sentiment that diversity in curriculum is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe that diversity in curriculum and seeking out other professionals to interact with while still in school and doing internships – such as geologists, constructors, operators, architects, government policy enforcers, etc. – can help provide engineers with a more holistic perspective so that the designs they create are complete & applicable from conception to completion. It is sort of silly to not have any interaction with these other disciplines prior to graduation when they are key players whom engineers must be able to work with successfully.

  • Thanks Ken for bringing such an important topic to light, especially regarding group work across different disciplines! One of my favorite undergraduate projects was a studio where engineers and architects worked together on a pedestrian bridges, forcing us to understand that these sorts of interactions within the profession are not outliers, but the norm.

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