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Back To The Future - Educating Engineers for Practicing in Rapidly Changing Times (Part 1)

Each civil engineer enters upon the scene at a different point in time. That fact alone requires that engineers of different generations operate under different types of stresses. Consider 1850 - Only 6% of industrial power was furnished by machines; 79% by animals and 15% by human muscle. What if you had to practice your profession under those conditions? (Today, more than 97% of power is supplied by machines).

Here's another example. The most famous civil engineering project of the 19th century (1800-1899) was New York's Brooklyn Bridge. No one had ever before used steel for construction. No one had ever used cables of metal in the construction of a bridge. No one had ever built a suspension bridge so long. This was nothing short of a technological miracle at a time when buildings in New York were no more than 5 stories and transportation was by horse and buggy. It is amazing to us today that engineers did all of this without our hi-tech computers, equipment, and materials.

However, that will not be the environment in which future civil engineers will practice. One benefit of looking back in history, is to notice the magnitude and increasing rate of change. This should only emphasize the need to look forward and plan how to meet the challenge of refining our educational institutions so that upcoming civil engineers will indeed be prepared to practice under future conditions (which really can not even be accurately predicted today)!

New civil engineering graduates will likely still be practicing near the middle of the century; and the magnitude of the changes in the next 50 years will likely exceed the rate of change we have experienced in the last 50 years. It is prudent to consider whether the same educational process historically modeled to educate civil engineers will be effective in the exponentially changing world in which they will practice. As our US and world society changes, are advancements in our civil engineering educational system keeping pace?

- John P. Wier, P.E., R.P.L.S., Historical Chair, Fort Worth Branch ASCE, January 2001

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