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Civil Engineering Overview - Overview PowerPoint - Podcast

Henry Petroski, Ph.D., P.E.
Chairman, Civil and Environmental Engineering Dept.
Duke University
Durham, NC

 
B.M.E., Manhattan College
M.S., Civil Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Ph.D., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
"I am currently Chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University. As an individual faculty member, I am expected to teach and carry out research, which includes writing up results in the form of articles and books."
"Read about the history of civil engineers and civil engineering to better appreciate the great role they have played in shaping the world as we know it. Also, notice the contributions of civil engineers that are all around us, in visible structures like bridges and skyscrapers as well as in less visible components of our infrastructures like water treatment plants."


"The role of a civil engineer is just very, very broad across all aspects of society. And it's a very responsible position to be in. But ultimately the civil engineer is serving society, and making sure that the infrastructure is in place, and is well-maintained. And also being responsible to look ahead and predict what is going to need attention down the line to make sure that there are roads in place, there are airports adequate to handle the traffic that's going to develop. To make sure that there's enough of a clean water supply, to make sure that sanitary conditions are preserved by making sure that a sewer system is in place."

"Oh, I think the engineering profession is very fulfilling. It certainly has been for me. It makes it possible to live a very comfortable life. It is a profession, and there's a certain pride and respect that comes with that. It's very people-serving. Without question, engineering is really the basis of civilization in many ways. We wouldn't have what we have today if it weren't for engineering. I mean, the comforts of having shelter. The food -- agricultural engineering provides enough food to feed a nation and the world. Medicine is a form of engineering in many ways, and engineers contribute a lot to the medical profession in developing instruments and tools that help in restoring health or keeping people healthy. Engineering is really a wonderful profession."

"Well, the kinds of skills that engineers have to bring with them into the 21st Century are probably communication skills, communication interpreted very broadly. And that includes good computer skills, knowing how to find one's way around the Internet, knowing how to use the computer to produce graphical images, drawings. What engineers used to do with a T-square and pencil they now really have to do with a computer keyboard and mouse. These are very important skills. Putting together a prospectus or a proposal for an idea is a very important skill that an engineer has to learn, has to develop really, because in working and communicating with other people you really have to be able to make a case for what it is that you are bringing to the table."

"What students learn in school is going to be different from what they do ten, twenty years out from graduation. But what's going to be common, what's going to be constant in that time, is the method that engineering students learn, the method of how to approach problems and how to solve problems. So their basic tools are never obsolete. The state of the art will change, but the basic tools that the students learn will be good for life. My advice to students is to pay attention to the fundamentals, to pay attention to the common features of the various courses. Whether they be in transportation, or structures, or environmental engineering, there are common approaches that all of those areas use. And catching on to that really makes you a much better engineer."

"Well, when somebody's enjoying a career it does tend to pervade their whole life. And sometimes it becomes a family joke when you go on vacation and you go out of your way to see a new bridge. But it all can be very pleasant and enjoyable."

Q: Can you tell me about the way that civil engineering was taught when you had your courses when you were an undergrad? Do you think that it's changed since you've been there?
Petroski:
There have been some changes, but a lot has remained the same. Generally speaking, students, when I went to school, which is about 35 years ago now, took more courses. Lab courses were often distinct from lecture courses, and you were graded separately for them. There was a lot more, I would say, contact hours, generally speaking. It took more credits to get a degree than it does now. Of course, the computer was nonexistent when I was a student. We used slide rules. Slide rules were a necessary piece of equipment for every engineering student. A lot of engineering students were known by the slide rules that they had attached to their belts. Somewhere around the 1970's after I began teaching, the slide rule became replaced by the electronic calculator. That was a very interesting period, actually. Professors at that time were very uncertain about whether students should be allowed to bring electronic calculators into class because it was thought that they might have an unfair advantage over the students that used the slide rule. But the computer - calculator revolution happened so quickly that it became a moot point, and now everybody of course just uses a calculator. Every now and then people that teach the way I do ask students in our classes, how many of you know how to use a slide rule. The number is decreasing every year. It's just about zero now. The only students that seem to know how to use a slide rule are those who have been taught by their father or their aunt or uncle who grew up with a slide rule.

Q: What drew you to civil engineering finally, though? At what point did you stop considering yourself a mechanical engineer and start thinking of yourself as a civil engineer?
Petroski:
Well, when I came to Duke University, I was offered a job in a civil engineering department here to teach mechanics, which is an important part of engineering generally. Engineering mechanics involves itself with forces and motions and how bodies react to forces, how they move when a force is applied, how they deform, how they change shape. And these are all very important fundamentals for any branch of engineering. When I became part of the civil engineering department I felt I had to know as much about civil engineering as I could so that I could teach the students in the context of civil engineering. So I began to read a lot and study a lot, especially about structures. And then I began to write about structures and use civil engineering examples almost exclusively in my early books.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the writing process and give us an example of how many you have written, and what made you do it, and some titles?
Petroski:
Well, I've written as of now about eight books. And the first book that I published was titled "To Engineer is Human", and the subtitle was "The Role of Failure in Successful Design". That was a book that was really prompted by a lot of questions that acquaintances were asking me. Neighbors were asking me why was it that bridges were failing. The Kansas City Hyatt Regency accident occurred in 1981 and people were wondering, asking me in particular when they knew I was an engineer, especially a civil engineer, why was it that that structure failed. Don't engineers know how to design structures like that after they've been doing it for so long. And I began to think about questions like that because I didn't have a ready answer. And in thinking about it I developed ideas about why structures do fail, why there are accidents, why sometimes things go wrong. And it really took a whole book to explain it adequately.

Q: So you've obviously disproved the theory that engineers can't write, or they can't communicate. Do you think that that's true? Is that something you've found as you've been in your career?
Petroski:
No, I think it's a real misconception that engineers can't write or can't communicate. I teach a course that is mainly sophomore engineering students, and one of the requirements of that course is for the students to write a major term paper that is a case study of some engineering structure or some engineering project that particularly interests them. And I find that the students really all do a good job. They write well, and they get very excited about the project that they're involved in. And they not only have to write it up, but they also have to present it orally. And they do that well, too. In other words, I think engineers really are, engineering students and engineers are really excellent communicators. When they're communicating something that they know about and they're interested in, not just some arbitrary assignment that might be for a, oh, let's say a speech course.

Q: What are some other skills that engineers need to have? Young engineers coming into the 21st Century? Because things have been changing rapidly.
Petroski:
Well, the kinds of skills that engineers have to bring with them into the 21st Century are probably communication skills, communication interpreted very broadly. And that includes good computer skills, knowing how to find one's way around the Internet, knowing how to use the computer to produce graphical images, drawings. What engineers used to do with a T-square and pencil they now really have to do with a computer keyboard and mouse.
These are very important skills. Putting together a prospectus or a proposal for an idea is a very important skill that an engineer has to learn, has to develop really, because in working and communicating with other people you really have to be able to make a case for what it is that you are bringing to the table. All of these are really communication skills.

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