Structural Engineering Education

an Editorial by Milo S. Ketchum, Editor
Structural Engineering Practice - Volume 1, Number 1, 1982

In talking with employers of structural engineers from many parts of the country, I find a universal complaint about their inability to find satisfactory structural engineers to employ. Many consulting engineers do not like to hire recent graduates in civil engineering. It takes years to train an engineer and a considerable investment, and then, when they can earn their salary, they leave and get another job.

There seem to be more structural draftsmen now. When I started in practice, there were none available, so the engineers did all the drawing. We rationalized that this was more efficient because the engineer could develop the design as he developed his picture of the structure on paper. I seem to sense that in structural offices, engineers still do quite a bit of drawing, especially the design details. One of the engineers with whom I have talked has made studies to compare using all engineers with the alternate of using both engineers and draftsman and is convinced that using all engineers is still the best way.

Civil engineering graduates are poorly trained in structural engineering from a professional point of view. Most get a sufficient technical background in analysis considering that only four years are available. However: (1) Their structural design is inadequate, (2) They have no introduction to aesthetics, (3) They are graphically illiterate, and (4) They get little exposure to construction methods and details. Of course there are exceptions to these generalizations and many of these problems are eventually remedied by their employers (if the employers themselves are competent).

There is considerable evidence that the educational system for all of civil engineering is deteriorating due to the lack of teachers and the quality of the faculties. In the magazine, Engineering Education, published by the American Society for Engineering Education, there are articles almost every month on this subject. The basic problem, simplified, is this: (1) In order to teach in a university you must have a PhD degree. (2) In order to get the degree, conveniently, you continue directly from the Masters degree to the PhD. (3) You graduate with your doctorate with no experience. (4) You are almost unemployable as an engineer because you have no experience, so you go into teaching. (5) In order to get promotion and tenure as a teacher, you must publish research papers. You will need your summers to do this satisfactorily so there is no chance to get experience. The teacher ends up teaching courses for which he has had little exposure so all he has is textbook learning. Some of the leaders in civil engineering want to establish professional schools of engineering like the schools of the legal, the medical and the architectural professions, separate from the universities so we will not have to follow the rules for selection, promotion, and tenure mandated by the liberal arts faculties.

The only way that this can be accomplished is by a strong profession. The schools of engineering can never do this by themselves because they are dominated by non?civil engineers and by university administrators that think in terms of the teachers of liberal arts and the pure sciences. The civil engineers seem to be too weak, professionally, to accomplish any change. The architects have a strong control of their teaching institutions.

The education of structural engineers, at the present time, seems beyond our ability to make changes. But we do have control of hiring. one idea that could be tried is to make a list of requirements for beginning graduates to guide them in their selection of courses and their career as structural engineers. This could be given to the local engineering schools and to prospective employees and be used as a measure of the students capacity as a potential employee. We structural engineers can give talks to schools of this subject. It is our own fault if we do not make our requirements known. Are there better suggestions? Let me know your thoughts.

Milo S. Ketchum

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