What do civil engineering college graduates need to know?
It’s an important question throughout the history of the profession. But given the rapidly changing variables, as considered in ASCE’s Future World Vision, the question is arguably more critical now than ever before.
Certainly, it was the question at the core of the 2019 ASCE Civil Engineering Education Summit, May 28-30 in Dallas.
Kevin Hall, Ph.D., M.ASCE, the Walter E. Hicks and Blossom Russell Hicks Professor of Infrastructure Engineering at the University of Arkansas, led several sessions at the summit, and talked with ASCE News about where he sees civil engineering education headed.
Kevin Hall: I think we do a really good job at the technical fundamentals in civil engineering education. I think students who are coming out of our engineering programs are very well prepared technically for the types of analyses and designs that we ask them to do. So I think we are very, very strong in that area.
ASCE News: Conversely, what are some skills you think could be emphasized more as we look at curricula going forward?
Hall: It’s interesting. At the ASCE Education Summit this past week in Dallas, one of the things that came out was the skillset that for so many years we’ve referred to as “soft skills” – we’re changing the conversation on that. We’re referring to those as the “power skills” now. We’re talking about things like communication, ethics, critical thinking, leadership and teamwork – those types of skills.
I think in the future, we need to continue to emphasize those types of skills in our students. Back at the 1995 education conference in Denver, one of the main topics of conversation there about our graduates was related to communication skills. We, 24 years later, are still talking about that.
I think, moving forward, there’s a big recognition that those – what we’re now going to call – power skills are things that we’re going to emphasize. And I’m really pleased that in the new BOK3 (ASCE’s recently released third edition of the Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge), there’s a big emphasis on putting humanities and social sciences as foundational outcomes, right alongside math and science. I think it’s a recognition that we are serving the public through what we do, so we need to make sure we understand societal needs and not just be so focused on the technical.
I think what we’re seeing now is that it’s not an either-or proposition. To make a very well rounded student, they absolutely need that firm, technical background and foundation. But we also have to consider the power skills and their understanding of society on an equal footing with that technical foundation.
ASCE News: Do you think that change in educational approach is a reflection of a different kind of student entering college in 2019? Is it a question of changing needs in our society? Or do you think the needs were always like this, we’re only just now realizing it?
Hall: Believe it or not, I think it’s a combination of all three of those.
Certainly, this is something that is not new. If you look back at the literature, dating back literally 80, 90 years, there’s always been a big emphasis on humanities and social science and understanding the context of our designs. Societal impact has been part of ABET accreditation for years. So, it’s always been there. I think now we’re seeing a renewed emphasis on it.
Now what is that being driven by? I think the students who are coming through our programs now, whether you want to say millennials or Gen-Z or whatever term you want to use, we’re seeing a lot more interest in them to go help others. And so we need to give them that opportunity. We need to help them understand how civil engineering is one of the best professions to give them the tools to go out and literally change somebody’s life for the better.
Then when you look at the future and you look at ASCE’s Future World Vision, it is mind-boggling, it is breathtaking, it is amazing in its scope. And I think it really had people at the Education Summit sitting up straighter in their chairs, saying, “OK, if this is the kind of world we are moving toward, then civil engineers should take this as a call to ask, ‘How are we going to affect this future world? How are we going to provide the infrastructure that these societies will need?”
— Lindsay A O’Leary (@LindsayAnneO) May 28, 2019
So it’s a really nice time for us to be thinking about this. And with the release of BOK3, which also reflects these ideas, everything is coming together at the same time. The real key here is going to be to follow up on it and take action.
What we have to avoid is that if we have another Education Summit in 10 years, we don’t want to have these exact same conversations. We want to start moving the needle on this toward actions and solutions, rather than just talking about it.
What do civil engineering grads need to know? Share your thoughts at ASCE Collaborate.