Civil engineering may not be the world's easiest college major and its graduates may not attain instant wealth or fame, but the thousands of students who now populate the nation's 227 CE schools and those who teach and mentor them share a commitment and enthusiasm that the statistics of ENR's first-ever survey of the discipline may not convey.
Melissa R. Ernst breezed through high school, but her first year as a CE major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was another story. "I found myself in the midst of a lot of turmoil," she says. "The calculus here is really, really difficult. It's very overwhelming your first year." Her freshman courses also included such "light stuff" as engineering statistics, mechanical engineering, AutoCAD and introductory geological engineering.
But the 19-year-old is also motivated by enough potential returns of her chosen career path to endure the hazards of getting there. Ernst wanted to become a construction manager because of the "being-outside aspect of it where you're not behind a desk all day," she says. "It's not a monotone career. It's very dynamic."
Federal program pushed
changes in teaching approaches
for civil engineering.
(Photo courtesy of Texas A&M)
With college-level courses in high school and summer school, Ernst earned enough credits to be considered a junior this year. She not only participated with upper-class students last June in the American Society of Civil Engineers' first-ever student conference at the university, she helped organize it and found time to assist in the mix design of the school's concrete canoe entry. And, yes, she also paddled it.
Some 200 years after the first civil engineering school was established at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., the world of civil engineering in academia may not be well-understood in construction circles. But participants today are engaged in innovative curricula, state-of-the-art fieldwork and advanced research that promises to improve the construction industry's efficiency and revolutionize its techniques. Even so, it is also a world coping with budget and bureaucratic pressures and the siphoning of existing funds, faculty and student interest to "sexier" engineering disciplines and to nontechnical arenas altogether.
ENR has long written about civil engineering education issues and trends but had never attempted a more thorough look at this critical part of construction --until now. The magazine reached out to more than 200 institutions and received responses from 117. Our survey form queried everything from faculty experience in the industry and student diversity to salary offers for new graduates and innovative teaching techniques. The results of this months-long process involved often exhaustive research by school officials as well, and are detailed in the tables that follow this story.
In some instances, data is incomplete, but interviews with professors, administrators and students help focus the statistics and flesh out achievements and problems of this important sector.
Survey statistics indicate some hopeful trends but some worrisome ones as well. Women undergraduates are still a distinct minority on every campus, although they are making inroads at some. They now make up half of the undergrad CE population at Duke University, Durham, N.C., and 41% at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. Minority student patterns tend to reflect urban populations but may also be an indication of more international students in the mix. That is especially pronounced at the graduate levels in terms of the number of Master's- and PhD-level students at some schools who are not U.S. citizens.
Carnegie Mellon students get
their hands dirty
with construction training.
The good news is that among respondents that provided numbers, 34 schools are reporting gains in their undergraduate CE student populations for the 2001-2002 year compared to five years earlier. Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J., leads the pack with a 158% increase. The school, which struggled in 1997-98, has benefitted from a large endowment funding a new engineering program. It now has 80 students in its undergraduate CE program.
Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, started a CE program just last year to serve a population that includes many working students, says Stephan J. Nix, its chairman. The school is still awaiting accreditation.
But the survey also reveals trends in the other direction. Some 64 schools are reporting enrollment drops of at least 1% over the last five years. The University of Pennsylvania plans to end its CE program as of 2004 and has already stopped accepting incoming students, says Wen K. Shieh, systems engineering department head. "This is an unfortunate development due to low enrollment and different thrusts that Penn is pursuing," he says. Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., is doing likewise in 2005, as the school focuses on a new curriculum of "converging technologies," says F. Andrew Wolfe, assistant professor and chairman of the existing CE department. Click here to view Top Enrollment Gainers/Losers chart
The trend is disturbing to CE department heads who worry how the discipline will compete for future students. While construction work is appealing to the young, "it does not appear to be the thing attracting hordes, even mini hordes of the best and brightest high school students who mostly want to work with technology and information systems, to civil engineering," says one West Coast-based department head. "The message we should be shooting to deliver to high schools is that of an advanced, exciting, technologically savvy field."
Even historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., struggles to compete with prestigious mainstream schools for the best African-American high school graduates. "We're no longer monopolizing this market," says Errol C. Noel, director of its civil engineering department. Compared to 15 years ago when it used to graduate 30 or so civil engineering seniors, Howard typically graduates just 11 to 13 each year. Other students, the kind who used to major in civil engineering, now major in computer science or business instead.
To reduce such attrition, Howard requires its freshmen to take Introduction to Civil Engineering, among other steps. Of freshmen who declare themselves as civil engineering majors, up to 80% eventually complete the major even if they drop out temporarily because of bad grades, Noel says.
But too many of the nation's undergraduate engineering programs still fail to motivate lowerclassmen, critics complain. "Students believe that engineering is building a bridge, designing a computer chip, or creating new solutions to societal problems. Yet in the typical first year classroom, students study derivatives, integrals, Newton's Laws of Motion and other topics that, for many, appear to be at best tangentially related to their mental pictures of engineering practice," according to Texas A&M faculty in a technical paper presented in June at the annual conference of the American Society for Engineering Education.
Most engineering curricula fail to help students connect the dots between "math, chemistry, physics, solid and fluid mechanics, mechanics of materials, and so on–getting immediately into specifics, with little or no appreciation for the common denominators that tie these courses together," complains Virginia Polytechnic and State University Professor Daniel J. Schneck in the July issue of ASCE's Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice.
Many engineering undergraduates, whether unmotivated, bewildered or frustrated, change majors, flunk out or drop out. At the University of Hawaii at Manoa, for instance, 40% of engineering undergraduates eventually drop out or change majors. "We realize there's a retention issue," says structural engineer Wai-Fah Chen, the school's engineering dean. But he mostly attributes that attrition to inadequate academic preparation in the K-12 grades and to the greater attractiveness of computer science and business as alternative majors for students who thought that they wanted to study engineering. Two years ago the University of Hawaii even dropped its introductory engineering course for freshmen, to meet a state mandate to reduce the number of credit hours required of undergraduates to just 132 semester units.
With the civil engineering department's enrollment down by 60% since 1994, "local consultants are dying because they can't get enough graduates," says CE professor Randall Akiona. To make civil engineering more attractive, some UH students want more hands-on work. Carolyn D. Wallace, a CE senior who will graduate this December, says her capstone class worked on designing a nine-story, 64-unit married housing development and a 250-seat open-air auditorium. "I think more design projects are needed at the senior year," she says.
CE professor Norman D. Dennis Jr. at the University of Arkansas, credits the National Science Foundation experiment (see story, below) for insinuating design elements into freshman-level engineering classes, and for inspiring capstone courses in which seniors plan and design real-life construction projects. But he complains that many innovations died on the vine after soaking up considerable sums of money, such as for the creation of Web-based instruction designed to give students extra practice in solving homework problems. "I believe that [NSF] coalition schools had a responsibility to keep those initiatives alive, but they have reneged on that in some areas," Dennis says. "In 10 years we're going to be trying to reinvent the wheel, and we need to learn from our failures as well as our successes."
Rose-Hulman Institute in Terre Haute, Ind., benefitted from the NSF innovations and its small size in implementing changes. While some are no longer in use, "there are some long-lasting effects from the experiment," says Robert J. Houghtalen, its CE department head. "Our entire campus launched into a lot of productive dialogue on teaching and learning styles," he says. "Teamwork is now a hallmark of a Rose education, and the teacher-student relationship is being replaced by a mentor-apprentice relationship."
Houghtalen notes that every engineering program "requires external, client-based projects in the senior year," and that in CE, "we even have them for a freshman design class. This has naturally led into service learning and project-based learning." He adds that "Rose-Hulman has changed dramatically since we experimented with the freshman integrated curriculum."
Georgia Institute of Technology is using its size and resources to expand opportunities not only for its own undergraduates but for those in affiliated schools away from its Atlanta hub. "We have been making extensive use of Web-based materials in the classroom since 1995 and all of our classrooms are equipped with new state of the art facilities," says Roberto Leon, interim chairman of Tech's civil and environmental engineering school. Distance learning is available to branch campuses in Savannah and Statesboro, Ga.
The school is also taking pains to support students and faculty. "We have gone to issuing mid-semester grades to freshmen and sophomore students in order to alert them to possible problems while they can still be corrected," says Leon. It also provides extensive tutoring, he says. Georgia Tech makes an effort to "help both young faculty members get started as effective teachers and older faculty to correct teaching problems," adds Leon.
Texas A&M University, College Station, has also invested heavily in hardware and software, to expose underclassmen to the daily use of computers. The school even remodeled at least 10 classrooms to provide one computer for every two students, and to provide seating that facilitates four-person student teams. The results include a computer-equipped classroom for a sophomore-level course in "principles of engineering properties," where students use computers to graph and compare the results of laboratory experiments.
Each class session lasts two hours at a time, yet Assistant Professor Amy Epps Martin lectures for just a few minutes at a time, to allow for team activities. "I think everybody is happy about the active learning environment," she says of the students. "I think it's a massive effort to change the way undergraduates are taught. And I think it's worth it."
The school is also among a growing number that have focused on integrating chemistry, engineering, English and physics curricula for freshmen, to tie together what previously appeared to many students as unrelated subjects or even as roadblocks to academic survival. Previously, "students didn't get a big picture of engineering...they genuinely didn't know why engineers took physics," says Jeffrey E. Froyd, academic development director in the school's electrical engineering department. Click here to view Leading CE Research Schools chart
Froyd credits curricula integration for reducing student flight to other majors. But he admits that at many schools, faculty feel under so much pressure to obtain research funding and publish research results that they decline to collaborate to create coordinated courses in which underclassmen, for instance, conduct an experiment in engineering with a ping- pong-ball-firing cannon, and turn in an English assignment on the experiment.
But another innovation proved highly successful, he points out: the clustering of groups of 96 freshmen into common sections of calculus, physics and foundations of engineering. The move provides them with greater peer support to keep women and minorities, in particular, from feeling disengaged and failing or otherwise dropping out.
While use of part-time faculty may narrowly skirt minimum standards set by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, the body that accredits engineering departments, schools see value in tapping their "real world" experiences. "We have had excellent success with the use of full-time practitioners as part-time instructors for selected courses," says William R. Knocke, head of the civil and environmental engineering department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg. "We have a CE alumnus who also has a law degree and is involved in full-time civil engineering practice who teaches our senior-level required course on professional and legal issues. I can't think of a better background mix."
At Carnegie Mellon University, instructor Larry Cartwright's CE class mission includes designing, scheduling, model design, formal presentations and building. "In the real world, it's a little tougher to predict and deal with screw-ups," he says. "The course is as much learning about failure as it is learning about success."
While fifth-year CE graduate student Joan Gariano had used hand tools before, many of her classmates in Cartwright's course had not. "Some of us had never even used hammers," she says. Gariano took the course to buttress her knowledge of construction, the field in which she plans to work. "The class gives you the most practical knowledge you can get in the three months you have," she says. "And there's no experience like being able to apply what you've learned. It makes you realize how complicated construction is."
Educators are hopeful that Baltimore-based ABET's relatively new engineering accreditation standards known as Engineering Criteria 2000 would focus more on learning outcomes than technicalities. The standards, adopted two years ago, were supposed to ensure that engineering graduates actually came away with the skills promised them by respective programs. But old accreditation practices die hard, say some participants, including Jeffrey S. Russell, professor and chair of the construction engineering and management program in the school's civil engineering department, which was recently re-accredited.
Stephen D. Mefford, a Texas A&M graduate last spring, seems satisfied with his CE undergraduate education and was even set to continue with graduate school in the discipline. But he plans a different route with his technical education so far. "I probably won't do straight design," says Mefford. "Management is probably for me."
Fed-Backed Reform Effort's Mixed Reviews
A federally sponsored experiment begun more than a decade ago to reverse alarming trends in students avoiding engineering careers will end next year. But educators and others are already debating the success of the so-called Engineering Education Coalitions program, which has cost $163 million in federal dollars and at least as much in other matching funds.
Nearly a third of all undergraduate engineering students have participated in the program, many unwittingly. The effort, launched by the National Science Foundation in 1990, involved participation of 54 schools, including several of the 227 in the U.S. with civil engineering programs. They sought not only to attract and retain more students, particularly women and minorities, but to teach them to handle engineering ambiguity with more sophistication. Many created introductory engineering courses with substantial design and team activities to hook students early before they become too discouraged or disengaged in traditional weed-out courses such as calculus and chemistry.
Texas A&M, home to the nation's largest engineering college with more than 7,600 undergraduates, including more than 880 CE undergrads, began managing a lead role in the national experiment in 1993. NSF's coalition schools adopted various experimental approaches to engage undergrads and help them see the "big picture."
The University of Florida created a one-credit-hour engineering course to expose small freshman groups to hands-on laboratory classes in various engineering disciplines. Its CE department, with 420 undergraduates in all, will introduce such a course in fall 2003 to rotate sophomores through various CE subdisciplines.
Even at the very selective Massachusetts Institute of Technology, engineering undergrads needed help in learning to work in teams on real-world problems with multiple possible solutions, says Herbert Einstein, professor of civil and environmental engineering. Last year, MIT graduated its first class of CEs educated with the new approach. But without more time to see how they perform in careers, Einstein hesitates to say whether they ended up better educated.
NSF officials credit the engineering education experiment for helping emphasize holistic and interdisciplinary learning and for encouraging more computers in engineering classes. "In 1991, few engineering faculty spent time thinking about how to engage students in active learning," says Bruce M. Kramer, director of NSF's division of engineering education and centers. C. Roland Haden, Texas A&M's engineering dean, credits the experiment for improving student retention rates. But he anticipates that the "halo effect" will wear off as faculty enthusiasm for the experiment wanes.
While supporters say the effort has had a ripple effect on noncoalition schools, critics say many have failed to spread around the intellectual wealth. "In the eyes of the schools not a part of the coalitions, it was a case of the 'haves' and 'have-nots,'" says Norman D. Dennis, CE professor at the University of Arkansas, a noncoalition school. Adds John M. Niedzwecki, head of Texas A&M's CE department: "The coalition stuff was an experiment. Some stuff catches on. Some doesn't."
Industry-Funded Program Teaches CE Teachers to Teach
Jo S. Daniel, a civil engineering professor at the university of New Hampshire, Durham, carries a cowbell into a small class of peers at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., instructing one to ring it every time she says "OK" during her mock lecture. It rang a lot.
Clad in shorts and T-shirt on a hot July day, Daniel awaits the class verdict on her performance in explaining and demonstrating the rheological behavior of materials. Members debate the educational value of her lecture habit, but Daniel is toughest on herself. "It's unconscious for me," she says. "But I need to make it conscious." Witness an experience in role reversal, as 24 highly degreed civil engineering professors are pressured, analyzed and even humiliated for a week as they voluntarily–and even eagerly–participate in a program run by the American Society of Civil Engineers to improve their classroom teaching and interpersonal skills.
The "Exceed" program began in 1996 through the National Science Foundation but has been funded by ASCE since 1998. "Each site training costs ASCE $50,000, and that doesn't include staff costs," says Thomas A. Lennox, the group's senior managing director. Initially run only by West Point's crack civil engineering staff, it has since expanded off site. After a session next month at the University of Northern Arizona, Exceed will have 192 graduates, he says.
"We focus on basic teaching skills," says Lt. Col. Stephen J. Ressler, head of the West Point CE program. "Because participants are only here a week, we can't afford a slow learning curve. CE instructors must apply for the selective program and be willing to prepare for and teach three mock classes." ASCE Education Director James O'Brien says one participant prepared until midnight the night before his class.
At the West Point session, Ressler, the military academy's CE staff and civilian specialists roamed among classes, supporting and critiquing at the same time. Kristen Sanford Bernhardt, a CE professor at Lafayette College, Easton, Pa., lamented her "time management problem" in not being able to complete her instruction. But, "my board work was pretty good," she says. West Point's own staff is not exempt from review, as Col. Allen Estes, CE division director, found out in a critique from Janet Sanders, a corporate body language consultant. "In engineering education today, there's an implicit assumption that having a PhD qualifies someone to teach," says Ressler. "But education is a discipline that needs to be learned every bit as much as engineering."