Civil engineers employ cutting-edge technology every day to do their work.

Drones, LIDAR, building image modeling – they’re all essential to the modern civil engineer.

But what’s the best way to harness all that technology? Is all technology good? How much tech is too much tech?

Learning how to employ technology as an efficiency multiplier is at the core of a new ASCE guided online course starting Jan. 24, Modeling and Analysis of Structural Systems for Efficient Design.

Led by Finley Charney and Justin Marshall, the course teaches the fundamental principles underlying the computer software and the application of advanced modeling approaches.

Or as Marshall put it, “less about a specific software package and more about how the software should be implemented.”

Marshall spoke recently with ASCE’s Civil Engineering Source about the course and how civil engineers can make the available technology work for them.

Civil Engineering Source: So this almost gets into the realm of philosophy, but how much should civil engineers rely on technology?

Justin Marshall: That’s definitely an important concept. Both Finley and I are of the opinion – and I think you’d find this broadly – that the software is an amazing tool that allows us to do things now that 40, 50 years ago would’ve been very difficult to do.

But we still have to rely on our engineering judgment. We still need to understand how a structure will behave in reality, because no matter how complex our computer models are, there are still approximations in them related to how they’re going to perform. They aren’t perfect representations of the structure that ends up getting built.

It’s a combination of understanding what the program is doing – so you can build a model that gives you the output you need for design – but also recognizing the limitations of that output.

Source: It sounds like you’re balancing on a tightrope there.

Marshall: That’s true. And at the same time, you’re also balancing the technology with knowing that as structural engineers, we’re in business to make money. The more time you spend building a model and analyzing it, the more expensive that becomes. And we always want to make sure we’re serving our clients and society and upholding a certain level of safety and performance. These structural analysis tools and computer programs are critical parts of all of that. It’s about finding the balance.

Source: It’s easy to generalize and say younger engineers entering the profession are relying too much on technology, while older engineers are too resistant to technology. Where does the truth lie?

Marshall: That’s a great question. Up until very recently I’ve been an academic, and now I’m back in the industry. I will say, with students – especially students who are involved in co-ops and internships who see how much those computer programs are used and what wonderful things they can do – I think there is more of a comfort level with the technology. And they’ve been raised on technology, right? So they’re just used to doing everything with a cellphone or a laptop or a tablet.

But most faculty – at least the ones I know – we really try to help them understand that, yeah, that’s a great tool but the most important tool is the one between your ears. Understanding the fundamentals that underly how that computer program is used is of critical importance.

Now, I wouldn’t say there’s a resistance of older engineers to use technology. The programs have been around for a long time. Even people who are very senior in their career were doing computer analyses in the 1970s and ’80s. There was maybe more of a balance between hand calculation and computer calculation than there is now. Now there’s much more of a reliance on these automated tools.

So, I think there is a spectrum depending on where you’re at in your career. But I don’t think there’s a resistance to use the tools. I think there is a healthy skepticism of the answers – which I think is good because it makes you look at the output from the computer, asking “OK, how do I know this is right? What can I see that tells me that this is reasonable?”

Whereas I think with the younger generation, that skepticism isn’t there. There’s more of an inherent trust. “What comes out is right, and I’m just going to go with it.”

And I think what needs to be taught and understood is that we have to make sure that those outputs are correct. And it takes understanding the fundamentals as well as development of your engineering judgment through experience.

So with younger engineers, hopefully they’ve developed that fundamental engineering education, which is still there and being done well. But that next step is helping these students really assess and analyze with their own minds.

Learn more about the upcoming Modeling and Analysis of Structural Systems for Efficient Design guided online course.