Civil engineers have long been called on to fix what’s physically broken in the world or to design elegant new solutions for unmet global needs. But now they are tackling a bigger challenge–how to reinvent themselves and prepare future generations of engineers for more complex demands.

The mission now is to figure out how to begin implementing the so-called "body of knowledge" (BOK) that the American Society of Civil Engineers has deemed critical for future engineers to demonstrate in order to obtain licenses and practice professionally. Much of the impetus comes from The Engineer of 2020, a report issued in 2003 by the National Academy of Engineering that outlines future roles for engineers and engineering education.


ASCE has long advocated that the four-year degree, particularly at colleges and universities that are cutting required graduation credit hours to save money, cannot adequately cover engineering’s growing complexities, including non-technical issues such as leadership.

In the late 1990s, ASCE pushed for a mandatory master’s degree as the "first degree" to practice. That proposal produced a loud negative reaction. Supporters regrouped, and unveiled the BOK approach last February (ENR 3/1 p. 11). It would also advocate for a master’s, but would allow engineers to satisfy requirements from other educational sources or on the job, equal to about 30 credit hours.

More To Know

ASCE’s BOK is built on 15 "outcomes" that specify the knowledge, skills and attitudes engineers must show–from designing experiments that analyze data to understanding public policy.

ASCE’s push for more civil engineering specialization and for skill in business and policymaking, project management and leadership add four outcomes to the 11 now required for engineering school accreditation. ASCE is first among engineering societies to propose changes, but officials say groups representing mechanicals, chemicals and electricals will follow.

The BOK crusade has not been without its own debate. Some bachelor’s degree-level practitioners worry that their license or practice will be jeopardized or complain of expensive overhead required. Academics worry that the desired level of study will overwhelm or bankrupt students, or at very least, chill interest in engineering fields. Others in industry worry about erosion of students’ technical engineering skills and the impact on university research.

Undaunted. Russell pushes changes for ASCE.

BOK advocates are undaunted. "We have been out trying to understand the concerns," says Jeffrey S. Russell, chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Dept. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and ASCE’s BOK committee chair. "That has enabled us to refocus what we’re trying to do."

Russell notes a new study by the Army Corps of Engineers of competencies, as well as lack of them, among 2,000 key staffers, of whom 60% are civil engineers. Results show fairly high levels of post-graduate study and professional registration but also "gaps" in project-program management, contracts, communication and leadership, among other skills. "This will be a major theme in the Corps, as a learning organization," says Don Evick, senior civil engineer in the Corps’ engineering-construction division.

Russell has enlisted about 18 large and small universities to test how to fit outcomes into current engineering curricula. "We are trying to operationalize BOK," he says of the 18-month-long process. "This is a whole reanalysis of the B.S. degree, not just a layering on top," adds Thomas A. Lennox, ASCE senior managing director.

The civil engineering program at Kalamazoo-based Western Michigan University, which just started up in fall 2003, is one of the first to try it out. It incorporated BOK approaches as it designed the new curriculum, says Jim Nelson, program chairman.

Skillbuilding. Future engineers will learn team and leadership skills. (Photo courtesy of Polytechnic University)

WMU reshaped introductory civil engineering courses to reflect how new skill sets would apply later on and focused more on team design approaches to reinforce leadership and communication. Ethics teaching was resolved by incorporating a philosophy course on technical ethics, while students learn technical communication from WMU’s industrial manufacturing department. "We cross a lot of boundaries," Nelson says. "It looks like our students are responding."

Kevin Sutterer, associate professor of civil engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., remains somewhat skeptical of BOK. But he is adding such aspects as leadership to his curriculum as the program prepares for its next accreditation, he says.

Cramming It In

RHIT graduates mostly bachelor’s-level students who Sutterer says are coveted by employers. He questions the master’s-level requirement. "We care about getting our students out in four years and we work their tails off," he says. "We’re already close to covering everything in four years, although we can’t do it all."

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Sutterer wonders, however, whether states will want to wait until the master’s level to license. He says Rose-Hulman may leave out one proposed BOK outcome–specialization–claiming that undergraduates may change their minds by senior year. "This is evolving," he says.

Other schools are watching. "I agree that graduates are not prepared for what’s expected of them," says Richard Heist, engineering school dean of Manhattan College, Riverdale, N.Y. "You can only put a leader in the leader container."

Heist applauds BOK for not mandating a "one-size-fits-all" solution. He wants Manhattan’s civil engineering program to follow its chemical engineering option in offering a "seamless" five-year bachelor’s-master’s degree. The school is now convincing potential employers to help fund students’ fifth-year tui-tion costs. "Then they don’t have to invest in recruiting," says Heist.