coffee mug on top of a table piled with books
(Photo by Olena Sergienko on Unsplash)

Edited by Margaret M. Mitchell

This issue, Civil Engineering is taking an in-depth look at the state of civil engineering — from the labor shortage to updates on key legislation affecting the profession to the best places for civil engineers to work and live.

A discussion of the state of civil engineering, however, would not be complete without reflecting on the state of civil engineering education. After all, the road to good infrastructure and the ingenuity and innovation to get there start in the classroom.

Civil Engineering interviewed five university instructors — all of whom have been featured in previous Higher Learnings — about the good and the bad in engineering education, engineering education trends, and the steps educators should take to graduate students ready to tackle today’s global challenges.

They include:

  • Hiba Baroud, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE, an associate professor and associate chair in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
  • H. David Jeong, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE, the James C. Smith CIAC Endowed Professor and associate department head in the Department of Construction Science at Texas A&M University.
  • Walter C. Lee, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Engineering Education and the director for research for the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity at Virginia Tech.
  • Jerome Lynch, Ph.D., F.EMI, M.ASCE, the Vinik Dean of Engineering and a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University.
  • Rebekah Oulton, Ph.D., P.E., LEED AP, ENV SP, M.ASCE, an associate professor, environmental engineering coordinator, and graduate program coordinator in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Men and women smiling at the camera
From left to right: Hiba Baroud, H. David Jeong, Walter C. Lee, Jerome Lynch, and Rebekah Oulton. (Photographs courtesy of Hiba Baroud, H. David Jeong, Peter Means, Jerome Lynch, and Julia Cannon)

In your view, what is the state of civil engineering education?

HB: Civil engineering education must prepare future leaders who can address the grand challenges of the 21st century, including climate change, pandemics, and urbanization. These challenges involve uncertainty, automation, and big data. As a result, data science, computing, and systems engineering are becoming integral to the civil engineering curriculum.

This presents an exciting opportunity for civil engineering education to equip the next generation of engineers with the skills needed to address these complex issues.

DJ: The required credit hours for graduation have been steadily decreasing compared with the previous generation, while the industry has been rapidly changing and embracing new technologies. Civil engineering education faces a daunting situation: Do more with less resources. This demands a more efficient approach to ensure students receive a comprehensive education and thorough training despite these constraints.

WL: As a non-civil engineer, I’d say civil engineering education can definitely be improved based on the state of America’s infrastructure. When I travel beyond the community I live in, it’s clear that there’s much work to be done, and a lot of this work relies on civil engineers.

JL: The state of civil engineering education is strong, with some of our programs keeping pace with both the disruptive technologies emerging and introducing experiences tailored to ensuring solutions benefit all community stakeholders. However, I feel civil engineering education needs to move even faster toward modernizing the curriculum with a deeper focus on technology.

And our profession needs to do a better job of showcasing civil engineers’ technological prowess. We need to move away from an identity framed by narratives of failing infrastructure to one that is based on the opportunities to use technology to offer pioneering solutions for the massive societal challenges students deeply care about. If we don’t, we lose the competition for the best and most diverse talent coming into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

RO: It is a very exciting time to be in civil and environmental engineering education because the students are becoming very aware of the challenges they will face as infrastructure professionals: climate change, social justice, resilience, resource availability, etc.

What must educators do to graduate people ready to take on these global challenges?

HB: To address the pressing need for more civil engineers in the workforce, especially amid declining enrollment in recent years, innovative approaches are required to recruit and retain civil engineering students. This can be achieved by transforming the curriculum and continuously improving it to be adaptive to our changing environment, societal challenges, and emerging technologies.

DJ: The world is evolving rapidly, and the pace of change is faster than ever before in the history of civilization. To keep up with the wave of the new industrial revolution, academia must adapt accordingly. Both undergraduate and graduate curricula continue to be updated to remain aligned with emerging technologies, the demands of the modern workforce, and societal needs.

WL: We must prepare students for the political realities of America. Ensuring someone can technically design a building that won’t fall is one thing, but making sure they understand how to recognize and navigate the power dynamics of determining when, where, how, and for whose benefit a structure is built is another.

JL: The problems that our global communities are facing are so complex that our graduates are going to be asked to stretch more than any other previous generation. They must have a powerful set of technical competencies that include computing, sensing, and biological technologies.

At the same time, civil engineering graduates must have fluency in the nontechnical dimensions of these challenges, including finance, policy, and law. Given this complexity, the likelihood of failure is increasing, so our graduates must have the grit needed to learn from failure to ensure future success.

RO: Students are looking to their engineering programs to help prepare them for the big challenges and problems in society. That puts a lot of responsibility on us as educators to update and adapt our curricula to meet these needs.

Do you see any trends in engineering education?

HB: The diversity in engineering education has been trending upward, although the progress is slow. I am seeing more women represented in my civil engineering classes at Vanderbilt, which is promising. However, women are still significantly underrepresented in the workplace, especially in leadership positions.

DJ: I have observed a substantial shift toward incorporating information technology-driven innovations into the curriculum, such as building information modeling, artificial intelligence, remote sensing, etc. Also, there has been increasing emphasis on sustainable and resilient infrastructure as a prominent aspect of civil engineering education and its related fields.

WL: It’s growing. The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by engineering disciplines has almost doubled over the last decade or so. However, civil engineering isn’t growing at the same rate as, say, mechanical engineering and computer science. I won’t be surprised if this gap widens, despite our growing infrastructure issues.

JL: Engineering education in the U.S. is rapidly opening the aperture for students with new themes being introduced in our curricula, including sustainability and equity. The pandemic has also helped engineering programs across the board accelerate the way they offer curricular and cocurricular experiences to students, including online and asynchronous learning.

These innovations will broaden access to educational opportunities and drive innovation in student learning for those who cannot attend on-campus programs.

RO: In our program, we’re trying to balance the technical rigor that is important for preparing students for their careers with a broader focus that is necessary to address the multifaceted sociotechnical challenges I discussed above.

We’re incorporating classes that include a systems focus, so that students can continue to get the technical depth in specific disciplines (geotechnical, structural, water resources, transportation, construction, and environmental) while also gaining an understanding of how these disciplines work together to create a functional infrastructure system.

We’re also developing in-class discussions on social and environmental justice, sustainability and resilience, etc. in the context of the technical curriculum so that they can see and develop broader social views within a technical framework.

What is one thing you do to inspire your students?

HB: I strive to bring the real world into the classroom to bridge between theory and application. Drawing on insights from my research, I provide valuable context to illustrate the practical applications of course material. Examples from my projects that I have used in class highlight the importance of infrastructure risk management in supporting food bank operations during disasters, demonstrate the use of data science to predict and mitigate road accidents, and explore the application of resilience concepts to manage limited water and energy resources in developing countries.

DJ: Today’s students are constantly surrounded by numerous distractions and instant gratification systems, which can contribute to feelings of depression and discontent. I encourage them to live in the present moment and cultivate focus. This can help counteract these negative influences and promote more fulfilling and balanced perspectives on life and career.

WL: I encourage them to be authentic, stay rooted in their respective communities, and continually look for ways to serve the public. I’m true to my passions and interests and encourage others to do the same. I remind them that they have great ideas and more than enough ability, and then I get out of their way.

JL: Incoming students are the most idealistic generation we have ever seen. This is inspiring, but it demands that we align our programs with their sense of purpose. At Duke, we contextualize the curriculum in a manner that shows how traditional content can be used to solve the problems students want to tackle as professionals. We also ensure they can safely fail. This gives them the chance to gain resilience by learning to pivot and work through failure to attain success.

RO: I try to provide a human context for the technical material we discuss. In civil and environmental engineering, we literally build the communities we live in; the work we do has a direct and lasting impact on the lives of the people around us. I think it can be easy to lose that when we get bogged down in the math sometimes.

What we do matters incredibly to people who count on us to do it well. That reminder is both intimidating and inspirational.

Any other thoughts?

HB: In addition to transforming education to meet the rising demand for civil engineers, the industry should adapt as well and ensure that those responsible for our safety and well-being receive competitive compensation in line with other engineering practices.

It is also important for students to learn about the diverse civil engineering career prospects. Many of these professional opportunities are at the intersection of technology, data science, and engineering design, paving the way for smart, resilient, and sustainable cities of the future.

Margaret M. Mitchell is the editor in chief of Civil Engineering print magazine.

Do you have an innovative program for reaching and teaching today’s tech-savvy civil engineering students? If so, email [email protected] using the subject line “Higher Learning.”

ASCE is helping educators build the next generation of civil engineers.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2023 print issue of Civil Engineering.