Inside Rensselaer
* Colloquy Examines Civil Engineering Today
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Colloquy Examines Civil Engineering Today

In the midst of the Oct. 15 Civil Engineering 175th Anniversary colloquy on “The Civil Engineering Revival, Challenges, Greatest Challenges and Champions,” G. Wayne Clough remembered an incident from his tenure as president of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Shirley Franklin, then mayor of Atlanta, wanted to rebuild the city’s neglected sewer system. She faced enormous political opposition, and she contacted Clough to ask if he would lead a group to inform the process. Clough proposed an unusual agreement.

Clough offered to gather 10 top civil engineers, who would work pro bono and sign a pledge not to seek work on the system for a period of time, if Franklin would accept their advice. Franklin accepted the terms and Clough formed the group, which was able to work above suspicion of vested interest, and earned the trust of many parties interested in the project.

“Ethics is an important thing because opponents of infrastructure will do anything to stop it,” Clough said. “The fact that my colleagues were willing to work for free, and not seek work, was the blunt instrument that stymied a lot of opposition.”

Ethics, as the discussion illuminated, is only one of several rising considerations facing young civil engineers and the institutions that educate them. The discussion ranged broadly, covering themes like the proper curriculum for civil engineers, the expense of educating them, and how best to benefit from industry partnerships.

“As we look at the challenges we face, our society is turning once again to civil engineers. Who will solve our transportation problems? Who will help us to upgrade our roads, bridges, and tunnels? Who will help us to manage water to serve a thirsty world?” — President Jackson

In launching the colloquy, Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson remarked that the most curious word in the title was “revival.”

“Why should civil engineering, the oldest of engineering disciplines, be reviving?” Jackson asked. “And yet, as we look at the challenges we face, our society is turning once again to civil engineers. Who will solve our transportation problems? Who will help us to upgrade our roads, bridges, and tunnels? Who will help us to manage water to serve a thirsty world?”

Civil engineers may be as needed in the United States today as they were during the nation’s most prosperous years of growth, but the world in which they operate is vastly changed, said Clough, 12th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and president emeritus of Georgia Institute of Technology.

Clough, himself a civil engineer, graduated from Georgia Tech in the 1960s, at a time when “the U.S. had emerged from World War II as the dominant superpower.” His education — which included surveying, drafting, and ROTC — suited the times. But, Clough continued, the “underlying assumptions of the 1960s are fading if not gone.”

Jackson noted that, “We know the education we gave our past graduates, even those of the recent past, will not fit our times. Today’s civil engineers increasingly need other skills, as they negotiate with the public, incorporate social skills in their work, and address questions of cost and sustainability.”

What should constitute the education of a civil engineer in the years to come?

On curriculum, Clough pointed to a project he took part in for the National Academies — called “Engineer of 2020” — on this very topic. The conclusion, he said, was that engineers must still be grounded in math, science, and discipline knowledge, but they would also have to have a broader understanding of the humanities, social sciences, and economics, as well as the ability to lead.

Clough advised today’s civil engineers to avail themselves of outside opportunities — like study abroad, volunteering, music programs, and language clubs — to broaden their education beyond the core curriculum. Still, he acknowledged, educational institutions must find better means to cull through the nearly limitless amount of information that is now available to students.

On the enormous cost of educating young engineers, Clough said, “we need to think about the way we use resources.” Particularly at public institutions, he proposed penalties for students who stay beyond a particular numbers of terms, and more needs-based resources.

“We have to keep the educational possibility available for all of our citizens, or our democracy is failing its citizens,” Clough said.

And on partnerships, Clough advocated “a carefully positioned” relationship. He said that, in his role at the Smithsonian, he speaks with corporate leaders about their long-term strategy, looking for natural fits in which research “can fill those particularly important points and not simply be doing work that they’re trying to job shop or outsource to universities because it’s things they don’t want to do.”

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 4, Number 17, November 5, 2010
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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