Back to the Leadership Future of Civil Engineering: Six Minds + Two Keys to Unleashing the Next Generation

March 17, 2014

Big BeaconThis post was contributed by civil engineer David Goldberg, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-founder of the Big Beacon movement for reform in engineering education.

The Spirit of 1852

The American Society of Civil Engineers dates back to 1852, a time of civil engineering leadership, of daring projects; a time of new canals, railroads, bridges, turnpikes, and tall buildings. It is a story of creative engineers on the move with big dreams and a can-do spirit. Much of the activity happened on an unprecedented scale. All was creative and much was uncertain. And civil engineers were the vanguard of the new technologies and organizational forms bringing them to fruition.

After the turn of the century, World War I hit, then World War II, and then the Cold War. Some of the optimism, creativity, and newness of engineering in the previous century became socially captive to war efforts or organizational or bureaucratic interests, and some of what had been new became routine. Those not paying close attention to recent events would be forgiven for believing that the current century belongs to innovators in other fields, most notably industrial design, electrical and computer engineering, and computer science.

The Leadership and Creativity Imperatives of the 21st Century

But many of the challenges facing humankind in the opening moments of the 21st century are calling on the spirit of creativity and leadership that engaged civil engineers of the 19th century. Buildings and structures are soaring to unprecedented heights and shapes. Transportation is taking on a new complexity of socio-technological modes. New forms of energy infrastructure challenge the discipline along numerous dimensions. The environment and the challenges of sustainability call for both new technologies and new modes of integration and interoperability. But with these new challenges, we have an educational regime forged in the opening moments of the Cold War, almost 60 years ago, and the misalignment with current times is wearing thin.

A Creative, Emotional-Cultural Revolution in Engineering Education

Fortunately, an overdue revolution in engineering education is underway. In many ways, it looks backward to the creativity, daring, and leadership of the civil engineer of the 19th century, and in these words we find linguistic clues to the essential nature of the necessary changes. Simply put, the revolution is less about advances in science and technology, and more about returning to an engineering life filled with passionate leadership, organizational skill, and creative, courageous initiative. It looks forward by bringing to bear advances made in social science, neuroscience, and organizational science, and by mining best practices in emotional and social intelligence, intrinsic motivation, positive psychology, leadership development, coaching, organizational culture, and change management to help shape the classroom and engineer of the future, both.

Pioneering efforts at Olin College, the National University of Singapore, the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Brazil), the University of Illinois, the University of Twente, Purdue University, INSPER, Lehigh University, and elsewhere are showing the way, but likeminded innovators around the globe are increasingly coming together under the principles of a nonprofit organization started in 2012. In that year, the Big Beacon issued the Big Beacon Manifesto ( to call for a new cultural and emotional basis, for new feelings, practices, and assumptions, all aligned with the challenges of today.

Six Minds of the Whole New Engineer

As part of the Big Beacon effort, in August 2014 a book titled A Whole New Engineer will be published, and that book argues for 6 minds of the whole new engineer:

  • Analytical Mind
  • Design Mind
  • People Mind
  • Body Mind
  • Linguistic Mind
  • Mind Mind

The first 2 require little attention except to say that greater emphasis on design and creativity is demanded in this century. People mind acknowledges that engineering is increasingly a team sport, and emotional and social awareness and skill require increased attention. Body mind emphasizes the leadership presence and intuition enhanced by today’s $500/hr executive coaches, except to say that students should be introduced to these skills much earlier in their careers than in the C-suite.  Linguistic mind acknowledges the role of effective speech acts, storytelling, and reframing in effective engineering practice. Mind mind emphasizes the importance of awareness and reflection in a world of lifelong learning and change.

Two Crucial Keys to Unleashing the Whole New Engineer

This holistic approach to educating engineers demands a different culture of engineering education, and the book describes 5 pillars of that culture. Two are crucial for unleashing young civil engineers in the 21st century.

The book reports that unleashing young engineers in different institutions, in different countries, under vastly different circumstances is a twofold process. First, someone trusts a student to tackle a difficult challenge. Second, the young person believes they are trusted, thereby eliciting the courage to take initiative, make mistakes, succeed, and learn. We capture this crucial reaction in the formula

Unleashing = Trust + Courage

The book discusses the practical emotional and cultural changes needed to get this kind of unleashing experience regularly in an engineering education. Watch the Big Beacon website  for previews of the book’s contents and more details on availability.

Join the Movement

Civil engineers played a pivotal role in the rise of the modern engineer, and they can once again join hands to rejuvenate their own discipline, and engineering, as a thriving whole. Follow the Big Beacon on Twitter and Facebook, and join in for regular Twitter chats on Wednesday evenings at 8:00 p.m. Eastern (hashtag #bigbeacon). To find out how you can be personally involved write to me at

goldbergDavid Goldberg, an ASCE member, received his BSE, MSE, and PhD degrees in civil engineering from the University of Michigan. David served as an engineering faculty member at the University of Alabama and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-founded the Big Beacon movement for reform in engineering education and He is known for his groundbreaking research in genetic algorithms and his writing on philosophy and engineering. David focuses on leadership coaching and higher education development through his firm ThreeJoy Associates, Inc.
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