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In Freshman Class, A First Taste of Civil Engineering
Class of 2006 graduates celebrate at ceremony on Columbia University’s campus May 17. Eileen Barroso, Columbia University. (Photo courtesy of Eileen Barroso, Columbia University)

The air is warm, but not stuffy. Aside from the professor’s voice and the tick-tack of the chalk on the board, the classroom is completely silent. Pencils leap to paper whenever new equations or graphs appear on the board, generating the notes that will be studied with great intensity the night before the final exam. 

The professor snaps a heavy paper clip onto the end of a flexible plastic ruler and holds it up to the class. “Now as you can see here, most of the mass is up here at the tip, and the ruler behaves quite differently when you consider nearly all the mass being here, as opposed to the mass being distributing over the whole thing,” and he flicks the paperclip to one side with his finger. The clip wags back and forth with a decaying regularity; the students’ eyes follow in quiet contemplation. Satisfied, the professor puts the prop aside, and the students blink and stretch as if they are coming out of hypnosis. “So, if we now look at a simple model of a single story building...” The lecture resumes, and soon the students are diligently copying down the derived equation to precisely calculate the displacement of a structure not unlike the wagging ruler.

As time passes the students’ heads begin to loll around, and they increasingly rely on propped elbows and slowly sinking posture to stay alert. Yet their attention never wavers. As the professor pauses to turn on the digital projector and launch his Powerpoint presentation, some begin to chat quietly while others finish the food and drinks they had brought to class.

There is every reason to want to take a break. It’s a beautiful day outside, the first warm spring day of the semester, and other students are out there relaxing on the grassy lawns, hanging out with friends and enjoying the bucolic repose that college life intermittently offers. But it might as well be a million miles away, because right now there is something important going on in this classroom.

Professor Rene B. Testa has been teaching “Design of Buildings, Bridges and Spacecraft” to fresh crops of undergraduates in Columbia University’s Dept. of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics since the course was first introduced several years ago. “There always was a lot of support for the traditional core curriculum, but there was a feeling, particularly in recent years that some students were not getting exposure to engineering, and that in those first two years were becoming disenchanted and feeling deprived. So it was decided to develop an introductory course which had some design content to introduce students to some of these engineering design concepts.

Columbia is not the only university that has amended its curriculum in recent years to showcase advanced subject matter to freshmen. Many engineering schools have begun offering survey courses in subjects like civil engineering alongside the more traditional freshmen physics and math classes. Keeping students interested in the subject matter is a critical mission. The U.S. produces only about 70,000 engineering-related graduates each year, half of them foreign-born, while China and India produce a combined 900,000 engineering-related graduates each year. So anything that might ignite interest in civil engineering at the country’s oldest university is vitally important to the profession.

For Testa, an expert in structural mechanics and materials, the design class is a chance to show off civil engineering. “I think some students are uncertain of what they want to do and they use this class to get an idea, and to help them make a decision".

As a result, the course draws in many freshmen who are not immediately planning a concentration in civil engineering. One of them is Thomas Chau, who plans to concentrate in computer science. “Back in high school, the teachers held a contest where we built these bridges out of these little sticks,” he says. “It was fun, but they didn’t really go into the math or science behind it.

College-level classes go much deeper, Chau says. “Physics in high school only did the general ideas... this class goes more in depth and shows how these basic principles are applied to the world. You get to know the more rigorous math and physics behind it.” 

Lauren Minches is another freshman in the class, and her interest in civil engineering has an eerily familiar origin. “I once participated in a contest to design a small bridge out of K'Nex, that could hold dictionaries. This was in sixth grade.”

While she is currently leaning toward a concentration in Industrial Engineering Operational Research, Lauren took on this civil engineering class to satisfy that old curiosity, as well as some newer ones. “I prefer the part of engineering that deals with physical things, like roads, bridges, buildings et cetera. I really like all the numbers in it.”

So are engineers nerds?

"Yes, I would say so,” Minches responded without hesitation.

Thomas Chau offered a more nuanced answer. “I think some definitely cast themselves into that stereotype. I kinda wish that they didn’t. It’s certainly how they are portrayed in the media.”

Does loving the elegance of the math and wanting to fully comprehend the underpinnings of civil engineering make someone a nerd?

“Well, yes and no,” Testa explains.

“For students, civil engineering doesn’t really have the high- tech stuff they’ll see in other fields,” he says. “And the students won’t be like those who go into other areas of engineering and end up working on Wall Street making a lot of money. So in that sense, it is nerdy.”

“However, there are a number of students who are really interested in the physical behavior of things; who have a special liking for tall buildings or bridges and whatnot, and they’re really drawn to it and that’s what they want to see.” 

One student, now more than a decade removed from Testa’s civil engineering classes, returned recently to give a presentation to the current students. Peter DiMaggio is a partner at Weidlinger Associates Inc., and he demonstrate to the students how the civil engineering concepts they are learning today are used in his own work with blast-resistant designs for large office buildings.

Aside from all the high-profile projects he has worked on, DiMaggio maintains that it was a fascination with the core principles of civil engineering that drew him into the field. “If you have those basic concepts down, I mean really understand them, then everything else will come together... if you don’t have good foundations, you’ll be unstable for a long time".

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