Reengineering the Foundation for Our Future
From Civil Engineering magazine, July/August 2013, p. 12
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The future depends on what you do today.” Preparation for the future was the impetus behind The Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025, a report that ASCE developed to answer two questions: what will the world be like in the coming decades, and what role will civil engineers need to play in tomorrow’s world for society to reach its potential?
The vision developed in this report, an outgrowth of a compelling 2006 summit of some 60 participants convened by ASCE, begins with these carefully chosen words: “Entrusted by society to create a sustainable world and enhance the global quality of life, civil engineers serve competently, collaboratively and ethically as...” Five critical areas that the civil engineer of the future will have to master are then listed (see www.asce.org/vision2025).
Let me focus on that key word “entrusted,” which has a profound meaning for civil engineers. The word does not simply imply that society will trust us as being honest and ethical. It means that the public will look to civil engineers as leaders in devising solutions that will help guide communities and nations toward economic growth that will be consistent with the principles of sustainable development. Civil engineers cannot just be problem solvers, working out the solutions for problems defined by others. As professionals they will need to have a broad perspective so that they can serve as planners, designers, constructors, and operators of the built environment, stewards of the natural environment, innovators of technology, managers of risk, and leaders in public policy.
If the engineers of the future are to possess that perspective and broad body of knowledge, the profession needs to look at how they are educated. Simply obtaining a foundational education becomes a basic challenge. Today, the average number of credits required to graduate with a civil engineering degree from an accredited institution in the United States is 128, and in some cases only 120 credits are required. Go back 50 or 60 years, and you’ll find that graduates earned around 145 credits. That’s a drop of nearly 20 credits. And this trend shows no signs of abating. State governments are increasingly calling on universities to grant degrees to students possessing only 120 credits. Does it make sense that the basic preparation for entry into professional practice is shrinking?
Consider the words of civil engineer leader Richard D. Fox, J.D., P.E., BCEE, the chairman of CDM Smith, of Cambridge, Massachusetts. In a letter to ASCE, he wrote: “The challenges that today’s engineers face are inordinately more complex, requiring both a superior technical knowledge and a working knowledge of many supporting disciplines. This complexity...demands that qualified professional engineers, using a disciplined approach, lead the diverse team required to meet this challenge. Engineers placed in this leadership role require an expanded set of skills, many of which can be effectively learned in an academic setting.” ASCE’s efforts reflect that need. We gathered a group of experts to determine the body of knowledge that an engineer licensed as a professional will need if he or she is to practice successfully. Only one other engineering discipline—environmental—has made a similar effort.
The initiatives to define the body of knowledge and raise the bar for entry into professional practice are key components of achieving the goals set forth in The Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025. Raising the bar envisions several paths that would enable one seeking to become a professional engineer (P.E.) to obtain the education he or she would need beyond a bachelor’s degree. Under the initiative, a prospective P.E. could pursue a master’s degree, to which Fox alludes, but he or she could also obtain advanced education through, for example, company programs, distance learning, and offerings from professional and technical societies, provided the courses were of sufficient rigor. And half of such credits beyond the bachelor’s degree could be in such nontechnical areas as leadership, business, communications, economics, and the social sciences, for these areas also will be important in giving P.E.’s the broad perspective they will need. But one thing is clear: you cannot fit the required body of knowledge within the 128-hour bachelor’s degree.
Fox also had this to say in his letter: “The Raise the Bar Initiative is founded on the advanced technical and leadership knowledge required to craft tomorrow’s solutions to today’s problems and as such, merits our full support. ... We must provide our engineers with exceptional technical knowledge bolstered by a working knowledge of social science, economics, and leadership principles. All of this requires the very commitment to advance learning as a basis for licensure—and thus leadership—that the Raise the Bar Initiative advocates so well.”
—Gregory E. DiLoreto
P.E., P.L.S., D.WRE, F.ASCE