What every civil engineering student should learn in their first year of college

Ah, freshman year of college.

So much hope, so much promise.

So many things to learn.

If you had to highlight one lesson any civil engineering student should learn during their first year in college, what would you pick? What’s the essential knowledge base a young civil engineer should build on for a career in the 2020s?

Here are some highlights from a recent ASCE Collaborate discussion addressing just this issue (and be sure to log in and contribute your own memories):

Yvonne Pawtowski, P.E., M.ASCE

Engineer, Gray and Osborne Inc., Arlington, Washington

“Communication skills are key. Whether you are working in the private or public sector, your clients (developers, public works directors) may have different thought processes and working assumptions than you.”

Daniel P. Sheer, M ASCE

Retired, founder and former president of HydroLogics, Columbia, Maryland

“The art of engineering is a problem-solving art. Fundamental to that art, and the first step in the Dima’s design process, is identifying the objectiveS (capital S because there are usually many) of the problem-solving activity and the ways in which progress toward meeting those objectives is to be measured.

“Almost as critical is the task of identifying constraints. Together, objectiveS and constraints define ‘What you are trying to do.’ Experienced engineers can (usually) do this intuitively, without even realizing it, because they are familiar with the class of problems they often solve. But even for experienced engineers, a formal identification of O&C is vital when working on a unique or unfamiliar problem.

“Beginning engineers must learn how to identify O&C and what metrics to use (or to create). [Freshman year is] time to teach beginning engineers (of all ages) how to figure out ‘What they’re trying to do.’ The rest of the engineering curriculum can teach them how to actually do it.”

Michael Kozinetz Aff.M.ASCE

Construction Manager, AECOM, Murrells Inlet, South Carolina

“I did not designate a major (civil engineering) until my sophomore year (we took mathematics, physics, and electives in freshman year that could be applied to any engineering or scientific paths). So considering that was my ‘first’ year on an engineering path, one of the most memorable courses was a series of lectures by local professional practitioners – PEs, construction contractors, municipal and state authorities, lawyers, insurance executives, etc. – along with an outstanding professor who was engaging. That gave us all brief glimpses into the ‘real world’ of those working in the field.

“In later graduate courses, a similar course was offered for construction management students, and it had the same effect. The speakers had worldwide experience, and it was a great introduction to a fascinating career! The nuts and bolts of detailed engineering, calculations, computers (batch processing back then!), problem sets, collaborative thinking, communication with others, and technical preparation started at that time as well, but ‘real’ stories and events stick with us!”

Richard Geekie P.E., M.ASCE

Shawnee, Kansas

“The first-year engineering student should study the history of war, why cultures and civilizations fail, art history, or art courses, such as free-hand drawing or sketching, a course in the philosophy of science, and a course in logic.”

Karl Sieg, P.E., M.ASCE

Sieg & Associates Inc., Venice, Florida

“English! And the arts and humanities. Say what?

“During one’s career, one will interact with many different people of many different backgrounds, experiences, heritage, values, and perspectives. Throughout human history, people have communicated through art, which reflects the understandings and perspectives of the time of the art.

“The humanities reveal how the different people you meet can or could think and therefore clue one into how one should or should not interact with them.

“And English. As editor of a newsletter for several years, some submitted articles were excellent, while others left me thinking: ‘Don’t they teach freshman English anymore?’ The point is that if you can’t successfully get your ideas and thoughts across to others, it doesn’t matter how good an engineer you are.

“The freshman year is the foundation. If the above isn’t learned and grasped, the foundation is built on loose sand at the beach of a tempestuous sea.”

Join the conversation on ASCE Collaborate.

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  1. Most of the people writing comments above, went through a CE curriculum that had 138 to 148 required hours.
    Many state legislatures have forced programs down to 120 hours maximum to obtain a BS.
    Many states require some minimum number of hours of Humanities and Social Sciences.
    SO, the required reduction of 18 to 28 hours comes out of engineering courses. This is 6 to 9 courses!!!
    Compare the courses you took to what is required now at your university.
    Writing and grammar were taught in the grading of lab reports – BUT, labs are slowly going away since universities are pushing faculty to Research or Perish – labs take too much time from their research.

  2. Humanities, history, study of civilizations, language. Great and necessary ideas. That is why we must get back to the 5 year (at least) degree concept. If there’s more to engineering than analyses is what we are saying then we must allow time in the already jampacked curriculum to expand these areas. But then, that’s another discussion!

  3. Do not always take the easy out and do not be risk adverse. To many times the elegant solution is lost by upper management making the safe choice instead of the right due in part to poor communication skills of the young engineer. Live the solution. Believe in yourself. John Bailey, P.E., Ph.D.

  4. In my third year of Civil Eng.i was.at an industrial training attachment.in.a civil eng firm. I.was.shocked that I couldn’t follow or contribute in.a.world event discussion on WW2, UN and linyernatiomal politics and economy. I had to quickly get a book on 20th Century World Events. it was a great relieve to learn fast. I later added.books on Jazz, psychology and sports. Engineers narrow on science.is very deficient.

  5. I too learned a great deal in my freshman orientation to engineering course that exposed us to interesting presenters from the private sector and subjects covering the breadth of engineering. I wish one of the sessions had been dedicated to the importance of the humanities to an engineering career. Understanding people and how to communicate effectively has always been a key skill that is given little to no emphasis in our education.


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