Exploring engineering education

June 2010 » Exclusive
How can we better prepare entry-level civil engineers?
Shanon Fauerbach, P.E.

Civil engineers regularly discuss the preparedness of young civil engineers, so the editors of CE News thought it timely to provide an update to practitioners about what’s happening in engineering education and what the future holds, with a specific focus on how practitioners, our readers, can play a part in ensuring the future preparedness of civil engineers.

A constant inflow of prepared, young civil engineers is fundamental to the success of private civil engineering firms’ businesses and government organizations’ ability to serve the public. Yet as the complexities of our profession have advanced and undergraduate curriculums and requirements for graduation have changed (or some would say, have been diluted), the industry grumbles that young civil engineers aren’t prepared, that education needs to change, and that the prerequisites for professional practice must advance. Some devoted academics and professionals are active in affecting change, and some organizations and firms count a culture that supports the future of the profession among their core values. Yet many others just continue to grumble.

Perception or reality?
Start with a simple question: Are entry-level civil engineers prepared? This is an objective question and one with many variables. What we can assess is if there is consensus of opinion among educators and practitioners; and as you might expect, there is not.

Figure 1 shows the results of two recent CE News surveys — one to practicing engineers and another to academics — addressing this question. The obvious disconnect in perception isn’t that surprising when you consider a number of factors.

On the academics’ side, many educators have never practiced nor earned their professional engineering license, so their ability to answer this question is, from the outset, skewed. Further, university professors are an aging population, so many who practiced civil engineering did so long ago, making them less equipped to determine what prepared means today. Also, many professors at U.S. postsecondary schools are from foreign countries and may not know from first-hand experience what prepared means in the United States. In addition, academics may not frequently review the results of employer surveys or meet one-on-one with practicing engineers or visit their offices.

One respondent summarized the feelings many expressed: “Most of the time, academia is involved with research and does not concentrate on practical design and detailing. One reason is that the many professors are not licensed engineers and are Ph.D.s that are required by the college or university to concentrate on research and publishing.” Another practicing engineer respondent said, “The state of academia today sees professors obsessed only with research, and teaching courses is a corollary obligation rather than a primary interest. Course offerings and the quality of courses suffer as a result. I’ve observed this scenario at multiple universities. Professors need to remember that their job is to teach, and research is meant to enhance their ability to teach; teaching should not be seen as an obstacle to research.”

To be fair, we should address the fact that practitioners’ views may be clouded as well. It is highly probable that practicing civil engineers have misperceptions about their maturity, savvy, and skillfulness as junior engineers, so their assessment of today’s youth might be off. Further, practicing engineers have to work to keep up with our evolving profession, so they might make assumptions as to the inadequacies of younger generations.

Yet, even considering these factors, I think the most subjective evaluation would determine that students are ill-prepared today, and will be increasingly so in the future, without changes to curriculum and more industry involvement on campuses.

Where do we stand?
Asked to rate the weakness or strength of entry-level engineers on 14 skills, tendencies, and learning outcomes, practitioners rate them strongest in the area of confidence, followed by use of engineering software. Educators rank their juniors and seniors in the civil engineering program to be strongest in problem solving skills, followed by technical knowledge. (Again, we see a strong difference in perception between the two survey groups.) Importantly, the practitioner respondents were not as united regarding the strengths of entry-level engineers, and their overall rating averages of attributes were less than the educators’. Most educators rated students as a 3 on a scale of 1 (weak) to 4 (strong) in all but the following four areas: public policy skills, business savvy, geospatial skills, and management skills. The practitioners agree that business savvy, public policy skills, and management skills are the weakest, and also rank writing skills as weak.

CE News covered the issue of entry-level engineers' preparedness in 2001. Check out that article to see how industry sentiments have changed.

“Soft skills” is a topic of much discussion among both groups. For example, practitioners expressed the significant need for improvement in written and oral communication. One respondent wrote: “Civil engineering is all about communication; communication with team members, communication with regulators, communication with clients, communication with layman political groups … An engineer needs to be able to clearly state a problem, the process through which the solution was chosen, and the solution in a manner that a layman can easily grasp. Right now, I am seeing college graduates with the writing skills of middle school students.”

Academics aren’t surprised by such comments, as they are equally dismayed that college freshmen are substandard in terms of basic communication skills. This is an issue stemming from middle and high school education.

Educators discuss how ABET, Inc., the organization responsible for the specialized accreditation of engineering programs at postsecondary institutions, requires more learning outcomes in the area of oral and written communication and teamwork, and therefore, professors have integrated more ways to develop these skills. Further, ABET desires the development of some of these skills through non-engineering coursework; and that’s a debatable issue with both respondent groups.

While both groups desire improvement in soft skills, they both lament the consequences of requiring more general studies courses. Eric Landis, professor and chair of the University of Maine, Civil & Environmental Engineering Department, shared the sentiments of many: “In most cases, students will not have quite as much depth and breadth of technical skills due to pressures both to decrease the required credit hours, as well as increased emphasis on ‘soft skills.’” But proponents believe by requiring more general studies courses, we are shaping more well-rounded professionals and developing management, leadership, and communication skills needed for business success.

Far and above, the most common desire among practitioners is for civil engineering students to get more real world knowledge of the fundamental theories they are obtaining. One respondent expressed the views of many: “Most entering the profession have a good grasp of the basic theory, but lack any real world application. That is fine, but the real world is also a world of compromise and balancing cost, safety, environmental impacts, client expectations, et cetera.”

Another practitioner said, “The application of engineering fundamentals is critical, but teach them how to be practical and have a common sense approach to problem solving and design of new products and systems.” Another recommended “exposure to real world processes in bidding, contracting, contract administration, project management, for both the design and construction of projects and the requirements and constraints associated with all the involved entities and their codes/standards.”

With so many needs and variables, pressures and constraints, can the industry improve?

Times are changing
Thanks to the many professionals and volunteers who think about these issues and act upon them, there is momentum to change. ABET, which sets the minimum standards for civil engineering programs, put into effect a new approach to accreditation in 1997. Focusing instead on what is learned by students, rather than what is taught, this “outcomes” model allows universities more freedom to innovate and continuously improve their programs. Educators are sold on the new model, even though our academic respondents discussed the enormous time commitment required to do assessments related to ABET accreditation. One respondent said, “The ABET process requires continual assessment, which is difficult to do. We spend a lot of time on ABET assessment, but I do think it is a good thing because otherwise we would get in a rut and do the same old thing.”

Further, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Committee on Academic Prerequisites for Professional Practice has been advancing its Policy Statement 465, which addresses the fact that the “exploding body of science and engineering knowledge cannot be accommodated within the context of the traditional four year baccalaureate degree” and defines the Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge (BOK), the foundational, technical, and professional outcomes necessary for someone to enter the profession. As you’ve probably heard, the policy statement promotes that the path for licensure will require a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree or approximately 30 acceptable credits, and experience — significantly changing the formal education requirements to earn a Professional Engineer license.

According to Jeffrey S. Russell, P.E., professor and chair, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Civil and Environmental Engineering, the BOK, now in its second edition and embodying feedback from a broad audience within the profession, is an “aspiration for the future of the profession,” while ABET outcomes are a minimum standard.

The BOK effort is supported by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, which voted in August 2009 to make modifications to the model rules to implement a master’s degree or equivalent requirement for licensure beginning in 2020.

Of course, such actions aren’t without consequences. The cost for students to obtain a civil engineering education to support licensure will rise, as will the time to earn the education — an opportunity cost for these young people. The question remains: Will these enhancements to our future pool of licensed professionals dissuade want-to-be engineers from choosing this course of study during their college years? Time will tell.

What can we do?
The civil engineering profession has a wonderful opportunity: it can improve. Below are some ways you can help advance the preparedness of future civil engineers, beyond the obvious of being an adjunct professor. Students may be off for the summer, but it’s a good time to make plans for next semester.

Even if you just have an hour or two to spare, you can make a significant impact. Here are some ideas:

  • Invite a class to visit a jobsite or a facility you manage (and ask a contractor to participate for an even better student experience).
  • Share with professors or students examples of good and bad plan sets. I’m sure you have both on your shelf!
  • Put together a digital slide show of a project, showing existing site conditions, construction, design drawings, and as-built photos. Share the slide show with professors to use in class; post it online and share the link with the student chapter of the ASCE; or if you have extra time, visit a class to walk the students through the project.
  • Put together a digital slide show of real-life examples of engineering structures, systems, or existing land features. Did you really know what a sluice gate looked like? How about how steep a hill with a 2-percent slope is? Viewing images of these everyday things helps give students perspective. Consider the sharing options suggested above.
  • Volunteer to speak to a class about professional issues, what you do everyday, what students need to know to be successful, or about career development issues. Share examples of a letter you wrote, a contract, a project management report, a study report, and other types of documents that will help show them what you do and the skills you use on the job.
  • Take a student or faculty member to lunch.
  • Invite a faculty member to visit your office or a jobsite.

If you have more time to devote, or could team with others at your firm or in your local professional association, consider the following suggestions:

  • Volunteer to help create an industry board for your local university if it doesn’t have one, or sit on the board if it does. Such boards help educate professors on the modern realities of professional practice so that they can best prepare students and guide curriculum to meet real-life needs. Some schools have boards like this (such as the University of Minnesota); many do not. Russell believes such boards will be a necessity at all schools to achieve the BOK.
  • Participate as a mentor. One of the academic survey respondents eloquently said, “The best legacy that professionals in practice can leave to the United States and the world is their commitment and participation in education of the future civil engineering workforce. Students need non-academic mentors to inspire them to understand their responsibility to keep us safe and secure.”
  • Be a mentor for a senior capstone class for a concrete canoe team.
  • Assist professors in creating case-base learning projects. Think about the projects you’ve completed this year. Did any offer well-rounded learning opportunities?
  • Work with a university to help develop a multidiscipline capstone class project that brings students together from various disciplines, just like they’ll experience in the real world. Some schools are doing this with architecture and construction management; anecdotally I’ve heard that civil engineering is behind in this regard. One respondent suggested that the students need “more multi-disciplinary team work. This could include engineers, architects, business/finance, HR, and natural sciences” — what a great opportunity in which to learn.
  • Hire an unpaid student intern. Given the economy, fewer students are getting on-the-job experiences because firms have cut internship budgets or can’t spare the time to train interns with fewer full-time staff. Get back in the groove; our future engineers need your help!

Perhaps with collaboration and continuing communication between practicing engineers, faculty, and students, we can hone what universities prioritize in undergraduate civil engineering education, help students excel inside and outside of the classroom, and ultimately shape a more prepared workforce. Our future depends on it.


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