What is Civil Engineering?

Before exploring some civil engineering coursework, students should understand this engineering discipline. By doing so, students will better grasp the importance of certain subjects.

Civil engineering is analogous to the General Practitioner physician who requires a vast knowledge in medicine but a master of none. Similarly, the civil engineer will encounter an array of engineering matters. Examples are roads, bridges, canals, sewage systems, railways, and structural systems for buildings.

civil engineering math requirements

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

Civil engineering is analogous to the General Practitioner physician who requires a vast knowledge in medicine but a master of none. Similarly, the civil engineer will encounter an array of engineering matters. Examples are roads, bridges, canals, sewage systems, railways, and structural systems for buildings.

Civil engineering could be the oldest engineering practice that began when prehistoric humans erected crude shelters or barricades at cave entrances to block the wind and cold. The world has many monumental engineering marvels created by ingenuity, an abundant workforce, and engineering applications without a college degree. Some of these are:

  • Axum Obelisk (Ethiopia): 1,700 years old; 72 feet tall and weighs 160 tons
  • Pyramid of Cheops: 2 million limestone blocks up to 25 tons each
  • Parthenon (Greece): Built in the 5th century B.C.
  • The Temple of Jupiter (Baalbek, Lebanon): 557-ton blocks placed 20 feet above ground
  • Stonehenge: 3000-1500 B.C. has lintels weighing 30 tons

The ancient world produced megalithic structures in Peru, Mexico, India, Egypt, Turkey, Guatemala, Pakistan, and more. These structures were the epitome of engineering principles and genius, performed without computer-aided design, global information system GIS), and modern survey equipment, like the digital theodolite. Workers inexplicably moved massive cut stones over rough terrain, some predating the wheel.

The term civil to apply to engineering wasn’t used until the 18th century to differentiate the practice of civilian applications from the military. The École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in France was the first to teach civil engineering in 1747. However, it was an Englishman, John Smeaton, designer of the Eddystone Lighthouse (England), that academics consider the father of civil engineering and founder of the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers in 1771.

By 1828, shortly after the formation of the Institution of Civil Engineers in London (1818), civil engineering became a recognized and distinct profession. The Royal Charter of 1828 defined it as:

The management of the power in nature for man’s use as applied to the construction of bridges, roads, canals, aqueducts, docks, rivers, ports, harbors, lighthouses, and breakwaters.

In the United States, Norwich College, founded in 1819, was the first private university to teach civil engineering. The first civil engineering degree came from Rensselaer Polytechnic College in Troy, New York, in 1835, eleven years after its establishment. Today, their School of Engineering researches cognitive systems, life sciences, advanced materials, energy, infrastructures, etc.

Currently, Rensselear offers several degrees in civil engineering:

  • Bachelor of Science
  • Master of Engineering
  • Master of Science
  • D. in Engineering

If you’re interested in a civil engineering career, you might want to know what courses are in your future. An engineering curriculum is demanding and often complex, requiring rigorous coursework in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. However, the work is also intellectually stimulating and provides the opportunity for creative problem-solving. Putting in the work needed to earn a civil engineering degree pays off once you’re able to embark on this exciting, profitable, rapidly growing career path.

Science and Mathematics Courses

Choosing a program with the ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) accreditation is imperative. The voluntary process for a school to earn accreditation requires that bachelor’s-level engineering programs need the curriculum to have a minimum of 30 semester hours of a combination of college-level mathematics and basic sciences. The program must also include at least 45 hours of engineering topics, including computer sciences, engineering design, and modern engineering practices. Consequently, graduates from baccalaureate degrees should be able to:

  • Make informed judgments based on the effect on global, environmental, economic, and societal influences
  • Conduct appropriate experimentation, analyze data, and formulate sound conclusions
  • Apply engineering design solutions while considering safety, public health, and welfare
  • Solve complex problems using engineering principles, math, and physics

Students researching civil engineering programs should confine the list to those with ABET accreditation, which includes 4,361 associate, bachelor, and master’s programs at 850 colleges and universities in 41 countries.

Founded in 1932 as the Engineers’ Council for Professional Development, the organization has set a high standard for educational excellence in these STEM disciplines:

  • Computing
  • Engineering
  • Engineering Technology
  • Natural Science

Why select an ABET program?

After meeting the requirements, many engineers may aspire to earn the Professional Engineer (P.E.) credential or license. These are:

  • Complete a four-year degree at an ABET-accredited institution
  • Complete four years of work experience supervised by a P.E.
  • Pass the two competency exams

The P.E. license allows an engineer to prepare, sign, seal and submit plans or drawings to a public entity or private client. Governmental work at the federal, state, or municipal level will require documents with the official seal of a professional engineer.

California, for example, licenses agricultural, chemical, civil, electrical, industrial, mechanical, nuclear, petroleum, and metallurgical engineers through the Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists. Many states stipulate that a bachelor’s degree in Engineering Technology does not meet the educational demands for licensure. Once licensed, engineers will need to renew annually or biennially; New Mexico, for example, requires odd-numbered licenses to renew by December 31 on odd-numbered years. Even-numbered licenses follow the same format.

Civil engineering degree programs should include math courses, such as linear algebra, covering differential equations, probability, and statistics. Students should take a calculus-based laboratory physics course and at least one chemistry class.

Why do these science and math courses matter so much? These concepts are the foundations of engineering. Without understanding the theory and equations, students wouldn’t apply these concepts to understand uncertainty, design safe systems and infrastructure, and solve problems.

At some schools, students can choose specialized courses such as Probability and Statistics for Civil Engineers so that their coursework is directly related to their major and future career.

Engineering Courses

It’s no surprise that aspiring engineers need to spend a good chunk of their time in engineering classes. As mentioned above, ABET sets quality control standards for engineering sciences and design coursework, integrating science and math principles with the creative application. Some examples of these courses are civil engineering systems, transportation systems, structural analysis, properties and behavior of engineering materials, elementary mechanics of fluids, geotechnical engineering, elements of hydraulic engineering, and introduction to environmental engineering.

Norwich University, referenced above, has a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering at the David Crawford School of Engineering, consisting of two years of mathematical and scientific principles. The last two years of the four-year program concentrate on five sub-disciplines integral to civil engineering:

  1. Structural
  2. Geotechnical
  3. Environmental
  4. Construction
  5. Water Resources

A foundation in each of these lends credence to the profession requiring knowledge of a range of topics. Examples of courses are surveying, calculus, mechanics, materials lab, fluid mechanics, transportation engineering, soil mechanics, hydrology, steel structures, and electrical energy.

Students pursuing a degree in civil engineering must excel in math, calculus, algebra, geometry, physics, and chemistry in high school. Otherwise, the student will undoubtedly struggle miserably because of the weight of science classes at the undergraduate level. The Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering at Georgia Tech has eight physics’ hours and eighteen hours of math-related courses. A thermodynamics class requires a foundation in chemistry, structural engineering, hydraulics, and construction use physics and math. Hydraulics involves channel flow, computations, fluid drag, and turbomachinery.

Graduates of a civil engineering degree program should analyze problems and devise solutions in a minimum of four civil engineering areas. By the time students complete these courses, they should have a thorough understanding of sustainable design and professional ethics and familiarity with project management, business practices, and public policy. They need to know how to conduct experiments and interpret research in two technical areas as well as how to design systems, processes, or components in two engineering areas, according to ABET.

In addition to the required core courses, civil engineering students take electives or classes that they get to choose. Often, students use these free electives to build up one or more areas of concentration within the discipline of civil engineering. Concentrations in civil engineering degree programs include Construction Engineering and Project Management, Infrastructure Materials Engineering, Environmental Engineering, Geotechnical Engineering, Structural Engineering, Transportation Engineering, and Water Resources Engineering.

Civil engineering courses may come from various departments, including Architectural Engineering, Engineering Mechanics, and Mechanical Engineering.

By rewinding to the high school years, you’ll know if civil engineering or a related discipline is for you by taking advanced math classes and physics. These subjects are a cost-free way to determine if your academic skills will satisfy the rigors of college-level calculus, algebra, and physics.

Physics is an essential element in civil engineering that applies to the analysis and design of structures, like bridges, buildings, infrastructures, viaducts, and more. The engineer must calculate natural load, inhabitance loads, positive and negative pressure, deterioration, and gravitational forces.

Master’s Programs

Many graduate degrees offer specializations; for example, Northeastern University has the following concentrations in their Master of Science in Civil Engineering:

  • Construction Management
  • Environmental, Water, and Coastal Systems
  • Geotechnical
  • Structures
  • Transportation
  • Data and Systems

The Master of Science in Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois has an on-campus or online non-thesis option in ten specializations. Concentrations not included above are:

  • Societal Risk and Hazard Mitigation
  • Construction Materials
  • Energy-Water-Environment Sustainability
  • Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure Systems

Even the hazard mitigation choice incorporates mathematics and physics at the graduate level. Courses where you’ll encounter these are:

  • Earthquake Engineering
  • Seismology
  • Probabilistic Loads
  • Wind Engineering
  • Reliability Analysis

Engineering Experience

Suppose the purpose of studying engineering is to learn how to apply science and math theories to solve actual problems. In that case, students need the opportunity to practice using these concepts. Hands-on experience in engineering is essential for success both in attaining your first engineering job and succeeding at your work.

Many students choose to gain this experience through an internship or co-op program. Both internships and cooperative experience programs help students get real-world training in their field of study. Internships are shorter, typically lasting just one term, and maybe part-time or unpaid. Co-op programs are full-time paid positions and last for three terms, alternating with academic terms, so that the student completes the degree program and the co-op program in five years. Because co-op experiences are longer, students can receive more in-depth training and may even train in different functions within an organization.

Even if you choose not to complete an internship or cooperative experience, your real-world engineering skills will be tested before graduating. All ABET-accredited engineering programs include a mandatory significant design experience. In achieving this experience, sometimes called the capstone project, college seniors must develop designs under constraints that mirror real-world restrictions and meet high engineering standards.

Having internship or co-op experience is helpful for several reasons, including adding to a resumé, networking with established engineers, and developing skills you couldn’t learn in the classroom.

The Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle attests that 85% of students participate in internships. In this endeavor, students gain valuable work experience at companies like Boeing, Puget Sound Energy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Port of Seattle. According to UW, about 33% of completed internships result in job offers upon graduation.

 Employment

The curriculum has little consequence if it doesn’t lead to gainful employment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, civil engineers earn a median of $88,570 with an undergraduate degree. There were 309,800 working in the profession as of May 2020, and the projected job turnover is 25,300 through 2030 or 2,530 each year.

The majority works in the architectural, engineering, and related services industry with 162,110; state government jobs are a distant second at 35,900 civil engineers. The highest employment numbers are in California (45,900), Texas (28,990), and Florida (16,250). Narrowing the data to metropolitan areas, the top three are:

  1. New York-Newark-Jersey City: 14,140
  2. Los Angeles-Long Beach: 13,820
  3. Houston-The Woodlands: 10,780

Statistics (BLS) show the highest concentration of civil engineers (per one thousand jobs) to be:

  1. Fairbanks, AK: 82
  2. Carson City, NV: 61
  3. Yuba City, CA: 45
  4. Walla Walla, WA: 4

Interestingly, Raleigh, North Carolina, is #7 with a concentration of 6.73, but 4,180 civil engineers worked there (May 2020). The top four above do not exceed 420 each.

Related Resources:

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What Kind of Job Can You Get With a Degree in Civil Engineering?

What Are the Benefits of Pursuing a Degree in Civil Engineering?

What Are the Highest Paying Jobs With a Degree in Civil Engineering?

What Should You Know When You Interview for a Job With a Degree in Civil Engineering?

For Further Reading: 

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Are there certificates to get or exams I should take to work in Engineering Management?

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