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It’s On Us to Inspire Tomorrow’s Engineers

D+. I never thought it could happen to me.  But there it was, in bold red marker on the front of the “Pumas in Peril” report I had thrown together at the last second. It was the first poor grade in my scholastic career, and hiding it from my parents was not an option. Bicycles were taken away, a ski trip was revoked and I never again dared to bring such shame to my family.

My sixth-grade self learned a great lesson: procrastinating leads to poor grades and poor grades are unacceptable. So what is the United States, the most powerful country in the world, doing with a D+ grade for its infrastructure?

Our country’s infrastructure is in distress

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) evaluates our nation’s infrastructure with a detailed report card. The 2013 report was scathing, reporting an average score of D+ across the areas of water and the environment, transportation, public facilities and energy.

An estimated $3.6 trillion is needed by 2020 to upgrade the embarrassing condition of our roads, bridges, highways, water supply system, schools and power plants. While that’s far more money than we can invest by then, the message is clear: We need to upgrade, and we need to do it now. That said, throwing money at the problem will be a waste if we do not couple this fiscal effort with a sound investment in the engineers of tomorrow.

In the early 2000s, college enrollment in engineering degrees was at a standstill. Since then, I’ve seen a subtle increase in undergraduate students in the field, but future demand drastically exceeds the forecasted supply. America simply needs more civil engineers. And the only way to solve this problem is by getting students excited about the field of civil engineering.

Tomorrow's Engineers

Our schools need a jolt

I visited the physics department of a local high school with this goal in mind. When I arrived, I was both amazed and disturbed that 95% of the students had absolutely zero exposure to civil engineering. They lacked an understanding of its role in our society. I soon learned that this is endemic in classrooms across the country.

When I was young, I was fortunate to be exposed to civil engineering via the Boy Scouts of America and a family friend named Ken Hughes. He designed a challenging multi-use path that winds up a steep 17% grade along Reliez Station Road in Lafayette, California. Students who aren’t involved with scouting or lack family friends like Ken still need enlightening, so it’s up to those of us in the field to cultivate engineering’s next young stars.

Our passion is important

Civil engineering is not just for those who are good at math. Let’s dispel the notion that to be an engineer you must be a math and science whiz—or in layman’s terms, a nerd. Technical skills can be learned, but the most important quality you need for civil engineering is passion to make the world a better place.

That’s why I joined the profession! I marveled at the ancient pyramids of Egypt, the temple of Angor Wat, the Hoover Dam, the aqueducts of Rome and the lesser-known canal systems of pre-Columbian Peru. Their construction challenges and benefits transcend time and highlight one commonality: society relies on civil engineering to exist.

Only a handful of professions can make this claim, and to be part of one is beyond fulfilling. We need to spread the word.  

My main goal when I visit a classroom is to make sure every student understands not only what civil engineering is but also why it’s necessary for a functional community, society, country and world.

Our path to success

One of the top engineering schools in the country, California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, has a simple yet effective motto: learn by doing. They fulfill this motto with integrated hands-on activities throughout the curriculum.

This concept is so important because of the technical nature of engineering concepts and the need to see how they translate to everyday life: Any student can memorize Manning’s equation, but it’s not until you spend three hours in a hydraulics lab that you gain a working knowledge of it. There is no better way to educate high school students about civil engineering than through hands-on activities.

It can be as simple as building a structure out of spaghetti and marshmallows or as involved as a bridge-building competition. Asking students to solve a problem with limited resources gives them a simple yet compelling challenge that exercises the brain the way a game of basketball exercises the body.

Our clear imperative

As an industry, we have the resources and ability to lead future high school graduates to engineering degrees. It is both a smart investment and a moral obligation to our profession and society. Almost every engineering firm offers internships and provides mentoring for green engineers, but the industry should be thinking beyond this.

ASCE already promotes office tours, sponsorship of competitions infused with engineering and field trips to water treatment plants and construction sites. Still, there are innumerable students not fortunate enough to live near a chapter that hosts these events.

For this reason, engineering firms should step up and reach out to high schools in one of these ways:

  • Assigning a student liaison that helps organize an engineering club
  • Nominating a group of volunteers who host and sponsor a water filtration or bridge building contest
  • Talking with teachers to develop ideas tailored to their school

Many firms already set time aside to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity; that effort could be matched with local high school outreach programs.

Our response is vital

No one can ground, or impose sanctions, on the United States as a result of its grade on the ASCE report card. So who’s going to hold its feet to the fire?

The responsibility to take a proactive approach lies with our industry and its engineers. We need to push our elected officials to financially invest in our infrastructure and we must pair that effort with an investment in the professionals of tomorrow.

What’s your take on this topic? Am I on the right track? Do you have advice on how to entice high schoolers to join our industry and save our country? Please offer your comments.

Author

Jens Norman, FE/EIT

As a design engineer at Harris, Jens provides tailored support to city and federal projects. His roles include lead designer, utility coordination manager and inspector. Jens is the president and director of ASCE's Golden Gate Chapter and a member of the Bay Area Water Works Association. He has a burning desire to effectively and responsibly manage our world’s most valuable resource: water. His FE/EIT certification is the first step in this quest.

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