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A civil engineer considers structural weakness

| Thursday, January 23, 2020

I’ve spent a lot of time in engineering classes, learning about topics such as the chemical process of manure acting as a fertilizer, bored out of my mind, asking myself, “Is this absolutely necessary to earn my civil engineering degree?” These mind-numbing classes neither advance my professional aspirations nor satisfy my personal educational curiosities. The cynical side of me thinks such classes are just a way for Notre Dame to keep engineering students working — hamsters on a wheel — and this line of thinking turns my boredom into frustration, followed by resentment; reason enough for me to put my pointless homework aside for a bit and spend some time comparing Notre Dame’s engineering curriculum to those of other, more tech-oriented universities. 

I looked to Notre Dame’s Indiana neighbor, Purdue. Reading through their smorgasbord of civil engineering electives, it was hard not to be jealous. Why do the Boilermakers get to take a course titled “The Comprehensive Urban Planning Process” while I’m stuck in “Computational Methods?” How has my education prepared me for my post-graduation plans of working in construction management, when I’ve only taken one class in the field (an introductory survey) and I could have gone to another other school with 18-credit hour concentrations or even a complete major in my chosen field? To answer these questions, I dove into the numbers. 

Notre Dame requires 130 total credit hours to earn a bachelor of science in civil engineering: 59 hours of civil engineering-specific courses (43 required for all civil engineers, 10 for my structures concentration, six as civil engineering electives); 42 hours of science courses (math, chemistry, physics, courses from other engineering departments, etc.); three hours of technical electives (courses in any of the engineering departments); and, to top it all off, 26 hours of University requirements.

Purdue, on the other hand, requires 132 credit hours to earn the same degree: 63 hours of civil engineering courses (33 required and 30 elective); 51 hours of non-civil engineering classes; and 18 hours of general education requirements. 

The two biggest differences are that the amount of engineering electives and university/general education requirements. In the fall of 2018, Purdue had 9,376 undergraduate engineering students (32,672 total undergraduate enrollment) — far larger than Notre Dame in both categories. This disparity shows in in the curriculums. Fewer students means less funding which means fewer specialized classes. This is why Purdue is able to offer so many different electives, giving students more educational opportunities in the niche and advanced topics of engineering. The ability to offer more electives is a huge benefit of an education at a place like Purdue. A student who is able to choose his or her courses is going to be able to better fit their education to their goals, and is likely to put more effort into learning about something they’re passionate about.

Interestingly, Notre Dame’s biggest strength for engineering students might lie in all the other colleges offered at the University. Notre Dame’s ability to offer its students a holistic education allows the engineer to grow beyond basic technical skills. My Basics of Film and Television course introduced me to a love of film, even pushing me to make a few movies of my own in a production class. I’ve had the opportunity to pursue a theology minor, giving me the chance to enrich both my faith and mind. And, perhaps most importantly, Notre Dame has allowed me to develop friendships (and intellectual bonds) with people who’ve never taken an engineering course in their life. These relationships have made me a better human, and have possibly set me up for a more successful career.

In addition to aiding my personal intellectual curiosities, Notre Dame’s holistic education has better prepared me for a working world that is seeing an increase in the role of engineers. In 2018, 34 of the top 100 CEOs had an engineering degree, compared with 32 who had an MBA. Engineers are being asked to do a wider array of tasks than in the past: marketing, managing people and setting company strategy. These are skills that are not always emphasized at tech-oriented universities but are at a liberal arts college such as Notre Dame.

So, to the person considering an engineering major: If you’re the kind of person who loves engineering above all else and wants to work on problem solving all day, don’t come here. It’s not for you. But, if you’re like me, and you want to learn more than just structures and formulas, Notre Dame’s a pretty great place to start. 

Matthew is the 3-Talley RA in Alumni Hall from Cincinnati. He majors in civil engineering with an itty-bitty minor in theology. Writing this column is the last in his long list of shortly lived passions. He can be reached at [email protected] and @coltonjorge on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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