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04/23/91

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New civil engineering curriculum features core, wet side, dry side

STANFORD -- The civil engineering faculty will change what and how they teach undergraduates next September, creating a new core to broaden students' perspectives on engineering, to be followed by one of two specialty tracks, nicknamed the "wet side" and the "dry side."

The wet track is new, designed for students interested in water resources and environmental engineering. Many of these students were previously designing their own majors and graduating without an accredited engineering degree.

The dry track is meant to continue to satisfy students interested in structures and construction.

The new program emphasizes managerial, as well as technical, skills and encourages students to consider questions of values, faculty members say.

"Frequently in an engineering program students get so focused on solving the problems at the end of the chapters that they lose sight of the bigger questions like 'Why is this exercise important?' and 'What really should we be working on?'," said Gilbert Masters, associate chair of the Civil Engineering Department and a member of the faculty committee that revised the curriculum.

"We want students to walk away from the program with the big picture, as well as technical detail."

The civil engineering faculty also made other steps toward improving undergraduate education and student-faculty interaction. For example, they adopted a policy requiring each member of the faculty to teach regularly at least one class at the undergraduate level.

At a department retreat in October 1989, before President Donald Kennedy's call for a re-emphasis on teaching, department chairman Haresh Shah appointed a six-member faculty committee to recast the curriculum.

"Nothing was sacred," said committee member Jeffrey Koseff. "Just because a course had been required or offered in the past was no reason to continue it. We began by asking, 'What are the challenges civil engineers will face in the next 10 to 20 years?' and 'How can we prepare students to meet those challenges?' "

Rather than create a separate environmental engineering program, they chose to formulate a common core curriculum integrating water resources, environmental studies, construction and structures.

Committee member Raymond Levitt said the core is designed to introduce the students to such issues as:

  • Modifying existing structures so they can continue to be used in a rapidly changing environment.
  • Cleaning up environmental damage, a particular strength of the department. "We're especially strong in the area of biological approaches -- like breeding bugs that chew up hydrocarbons and make them less noxious," Levitt said.
  • Designing new structures and systems with an eye to maintaining a stable biosphere.

Three new courses were added to the department's offerings. Levitt and Leonard Ortolano, chairman of the committee, will teach "Engineering the Built Environment," a core course that considers manipulating the natural environment to serve human needs, while avoiding unintended negative consequences.

"We want students both to learn how to build and to understand the impact of what they build," Levitt said.

Another new core course, "Engineering and Management of the Construction Process," introduces tools and techniques for planning, organizing and executing complex building projects.

And, beginning next spring, Perry McCarty, Paul Roberts and Jim Leckie will team-teach a course on the chemical, biological and physical treatment of contaminated water.

Before embarking on the core, students will take science, mathematics and engineering fundamentals, as before, but with the diversity of science, rather than just physics, stressed.

After completing the common core, students will narrow their field of study to either the water resources-environment track or the structures-construction track.

Some committee members expressed reservations about the specialization of the new program.

"The bachelor's degree should really stress breadth," Levitt said. "The undergraduate program is not a vocational training. Students should complete their undergraduate education equipped to properly choose whether or not to pursue specialized study."

Others emphasized that the opportunity for further study remains.

"Students who finish our program will be well prepared for any civil engineering graduate program in the country," Masters said.

The curriculum committee members included Ortolano, Craig Howard, Koseff, Levitt, Masters and Allison Smith.

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