Civil Engineering in the Classroom

By Foster, Patrick N. | Children's Technology and Engineering, May 2011 | Go to article overview
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Civil Engineering in the Classroom

Foster, Patrick N., Children's Technology and Engineering

You're more likely to encounter the term "Civil Engineering" in a government occupational outlook report than in everyday conversation. But, it's a useful term that children can understand and use. Vocabulary related to civil engineering includes two key terms: structure and infrastructure.

what is civil engineering?

We can think of engineering as the fusion of technological design and technological action. In general, civil engineering deals with structures that are built on-site. The Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, and the Empire State Building are products of civil engineering. Apartment complexes, shopping malls, and school buildings are as well.

Civil engineering also deals with infrastructure. Infrastructure is the "behind the scenes" framework that technological systems rely on. If the human body were a machine, the circulatory system would be an example of infrastructure. The aqueducts of Rome, the Panama Canal, the Dutch Delta Works, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the U.S. Interstate Highway System are all civil engineering projects because they provide infrastructure.


civil engineers

Here's a pretty comprehensive definition of civil engineering as a


Civil engineers design and supervise the construction of roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, and water supply and sewage systems. They must consider many factors in the design process, from the construction costs and expected lifetime of a project to government regulations and potential environmental hazards such as earthquakes and hurricanes ... (U.S. Department of Labor:

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (2010), there were more than 278,000 civil engineers working in the U.S. in 2008. This makes civil engineering the single largest branch of engineering in the country (Figure 1).

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) lists nine types of civil engineers, but we can generalize these into three categories:

* Those who design and build structures like houses, bridges, and dams.

* Those who design and build infrastructure, like water supply networks, roads, and sewage, to support buildings, bridges, and other structures.

* Those who oversee the research and logistics, like surveying, material science, and soil mechanics, necessary to create structures and infrastructures.

It's easy to forget this third group because we often can't connect them with something tangible like a road or a building. Their work often overlaps with science, math, and other fields.

For example, materials scientists apply most of the same kinds of inquiry and experimentation as theoretical scientists.

The names of a few materials scientists may be familiar to some elementary-school students. Charles Goodyear (1800-1860) patented the vulcanization process, which paved the way for modern uses of rubber, and is the namesake of the Goodyear Tire company. Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), who created the Nobel Prize program, invented dynamite. And much of the work of George Washington Carver (1864-1943) was also in this area.

Surveyors, meanwhile, are civil engineers who use practical geometry to determine land boundaries. In order to do their jobs, most surveyors also have to apply social studies concepts from areas such as geography and law. Although many stories about both men are probably mythical, we know that both Benjamin Bannecker (1731-1806) and George Washington (1732-1799) were accomplished land surveyors.

Related fields: In addition to the 278,000 civil engineers, about seven million other people in the U.S. work in the construction sector, including about 800,000 who are in a field called "Heavy and Civil Engineering Construction." There are also several branches of engineering that are sometimes closely related to civil engineering, and these include environmental engineering (see the March 2011 issue of Children's Technology and Engineering) and mining engineering.

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