At Civil Engineering Department Heads Conference, Teachers Become Learners

June 27, 2013
“What do the [civil engineering] department heads care about? They care about attracting better students, they want to have better curriculum, and they want to have more effective faculty—faculty who do a great job teaching and a great job doing research,” says James J. O’Brien, Jr., P.E., M.ASCE, the managing director of ASCE’s Professional and Educational Activities Division.

Seeking to answer the needs of educators from civil engineering programs large and small, ASCE held its ninth consecutive National Civil Engineering Department Heads Conference to provide participants with resources to address the areas of curriculum, program development, faculty conflict, ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) accreditation, and adaptation to changes to engineering education.

A total of 92 department heads from civil engineering programs throughout the U.S. gathered for the 3-day conference June 9–11, which was hosted by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and organized by ASCE’s Department Heads Coordinating Council (DHCC).

“The department heads who attend this conference are leaders of changing organizations: The [departments at the] universities that these department heads attended as students are not the same department[s] that they are leading today. Sometimes they know how to make changes and sometimes they don’t. What I believe makes this conference so successful for the department heads is that they care about their graduates becoming successful engineers down the road.”

Innovative Curriculum, Better Teachers, and Raise the Bar

This year’s conference featured 3 important sessions involving curriculum, faculty issues, and change. There was also a workshop dealing with ABET.

Professor Kevin D. Hall, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, department head, 21st Century Leadership Chair in Civil Engineering, and director of the Mack-Blackwell Rural Transportation Center at the University of Arkansas, led the opening session, looking at innovative curricula at engineering programs throughout the U.S. Hall conducted a workshop to help the department heads think about creating a more innovative curriculum for their own students.

W. Samuel Easterling, Ph.D., P.E., F.ASCE, head of the The Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, opened the second session on faculty issues with a discussion on conflict, workload, and mentoring, followed by another brainstorming workshop led by Hall on how best to deal with difficult faculty.

In the third session, Hall challenged the department heads to think about how they best can bring about positive and effective change by envisioning what their department will look like in 10 years.

In a workshop that followed, the department heads discussed in small guided discussion groups ways to embrace and encourage change in an environment that rewards inaction. That discussion also included a town hall-type meeting focused on Raise the Bar. Raise the Bar is an initiative which aims to amend state laws to elevate the civil engineering education required for professional licensure to the level of a master’s degree or an equivalent 30 credits of graduate or upper-level undergraduate courses.

“We are looking to the future,” said past ASCE President Blaine D. Leonard, P.E., D.GE, Pres.10.ASCE, to the department heads at the conference. “We are looking at what the needs are for future practice in a much more complex world. The National Academy of Engineering has studied this and reported that a bachelor’s degree is inadequate. There’s not enough time in there to teach what needs to be taught.”

Developing the Next Generation of Civil Engineers

“If the civil engineering profession is looking to attract innovative and creative engineers down the road, you can’t just bring in good students and do nothing but graduate them,” O’Brien concluded, “The department heads who are at this conference wanted to learn how to develop our next generation of civil engineers through better curriculum, more effective teachers, and by overcoming the challenges to education in the era of shrinking budgets and pressure to get down to 120 credits.”

The DHCC announced that the next Department Heads Conference will take place April 6–8, 2014, at the University of Oklahoma.

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