How to Become a Civil Engineer

Civil engineering education begins long before college, with the classes that the potential civil engineer takes in high school. Yet, it may start even earlier that that, with the structures which the future civil engineer makes out of Lego™ Blocks; seeing how high a tower they can build and how long a bridge they can create. While many children like building with blocks, there’s something different about how the child who is destined to be a civil engineer builds.

Civil engineering, like all engineering disciplines, is a science. Therefore, the student who wants to study to be a civil engineer needs to study math and the sciences, long before entering college. Algebra, trigonometry, chemistry and physics all play a part in the daily work of the civil engineer. Taking these classes in high-school and doing well in them, prepares the student for their studies in college.

Another very important area of study, although classes aren’t offered for it, is problem solving. Like all types of engineering, civil engineering is about solving problems. The engineer is presented with a problem and expected to find a solution for it. Whether that problem is spanning a river, stopping coastal erosion, providing water for farmers in arid climates or preventing a building from falling in an earthquake, everything a civil engineer does is problem solving.

So, how does one learn to solve problems, since there are no classes offered in it? Simple; one learns to solve problems by solving them. It doesn’t matter if those problems are mathematical, mechanical or software, problems are problems. The skills used to solve one type of problem easy translate to solving additional types of problems.

Puzzles are a great tool for learning how to solve problems, especially 3D puzzles. The challenge of seeing what is, and figuring out how to make it into something else is all about problem solving. Take the Rubik’s Cube as an example. To solve it, one must see where everything is, then see where you want it to be. The mind imagines a route from one to the other, and the hands move the parts of the cube to bring about that solution.

The best problem solvers are those that learn how to think outside the box. When an “impossible problem” is presented, it takes a new approach to solve it. What makes that problem impossible is that nobody has found the right way to think of it yet. But there is always someone who can approach that problem from a different viewpoint and solve it. A student who wants to become an outstanding civil engineer needs to learn how to think outside of the box.

Another important skill for civil engineers to learn is how to draw. The solution to every problem must be drawn in order to share that solution with others. This isn’t artistic drawing, but rather technical drawing; drafting, whether done with a pencil and ruler of on a computer with a CAD (computer aided drafting) program.

Formal Civil Engineering Training
A number of universities offer formal civil engineering degrees. These can range from an Associate’s degree to a Masters degree, although the most common is a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. What’s the difference between these degrees?

  • Associate’s degree in Civil Engineering Technology – This two year program prepares those who wish to work in Civil Engineering, but not with the responsibility of being a project leader. Individuals with an associate’s degree work as assistants to Civil Engineers, doing research, testing (such as soils testing) and turning rough drawings into finished products.
  • Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering – This four to five year program is the standard civil engineering degree. Students who gain their bachelor of science have been trained in both general civil engineering subjects and a specialty in one of the various civil engineering disciplines.
  • Master’s of Science in Civil Engineering – For those who wish to continue their engineering studies, a master’s of science degree is available from some institutions. Engineers with a master’s degree often work as professors in universities or in the development of new technologies.

Civil engineering students take a wide variety of courses, mostly in math and the sciences. While a student will be working towards a specialty in a particular civil engineering field, they will also need a generalized engineering education. Many of the concepts used in civil engineering overlap from one specialty to another; just as many projects require the collaboration of various specialties.

As part of civil engineering studies, students are required to study the higher forms of mathematics. While civil engineering is about solving problems, those solutions need mathematical proofs. Determining the right amount of material to use in a particular application requires both an understanding of materials science and the computational ability to calculate the stresses on that material.

Computer science is another important area of study for civil engineering students. Today, the engineer has given up his slide rule and drafting table for computers. Not only is this more efficient, but things can be done in a computer drawing that can’t be done well on paper.

Computers are also used extensively in pre-production testing of designs. With computers, a design can be put through environmental simulations which theoretically put that design through a wide range of stresses, determining how those designs would react to the situation. Had this capability existed in 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster may never have happened.

Since civil engineering has to be applied in the real world, civil engineering students back up their classroom work with lab work, where they experiment with materials and designs, gaining experience in working with the theories they have learned from their textbooks.

The first two to three years of a civil engineering student’s studies are focused upon the general interdisciplinary skills they will need to develop for their engineering career. The later part of their education is focused on their area of specialty, applying the concepts learned in the earlier part of their education and learning how to solve the problems which they will confront in their workday world.

Post-Graduation Education
A civil engineer’s education doesn’t end at graduation. Most states require that civil engineers who work as project managers or team leaders receive their Professional Engineer’s License (PE). This certification is a must for all engineers who provide service to the public. To be eligible for taking the PE test, the engineer must have at least a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and four years of applicable work experience.

Because of the vast strides which are being made in civil engineering technology, many states are implementing a requirement for continuing education for all civil engineers. These continuing engineering classes would expose engineers to new methods and technologies. Re-certification would not be issued without a minimum number of continuing education credits.