The ASCE Civil Engineering Roundtable showcases insights from a cross section of Society members on a variety of industry topics.
Today’s roundtable considers how civil engineers keep pace with the ever-changing technology landscape.
Question: How do you stay current with evolving technology?
P.E., PTOE, M.ASCE
Director of Public Works, city of Grandview, Missouri
As a problem solver and applied scientist, staying current on the technical side of engineering is not a choice, but a need.
Every facet of civil engineering has changed over the 50 years I have practiced. It is a disservice to those who depend on me to build safe, efficient infrastructure if I do not keep my engineering skills current. However, learning modern technology is demanding work, so you need a strategy to succeed in learning. I have found the keys to keeping current is first admitting I do not know everything, and technical knowledge has an expiration date. Once accepting the need to learn, then it is a matter of how. I have used many ways.
When I teach a class, write an article or paper, or present at a professional meeting, I need to first learn as much as possible about the subject. So, I search out such opportunities. While difficult, in the end, you not only help other people learn, you gain a sense of accomplishment.
In the same vein, doing after-action studies and reports and updating SOPs force you to document technical work and corroborate facts. On a more practical side, when facing a new problem to solve, I dare to dream of unique ways to get the work done; then I do my best to bring that dream to reality. This takes learning and study.
Finally, I am not afraid to use other people’s ideas, with credit of course. After all, belonging to a community of professionals, and sharing ideas goes to the heart of professionalism. So I constantly read journals and articles, magazines, and webpages to keep up with current work by others.
Norma Jean Mattei
Ph.D., P.E., F.SEI, F.ASCE, Pres.17.ASCE
University of New Orleans, Louisiana
A university professor’s performance is measured using three metrics: teaching, research, and service. Those three things require that I stay current – in very different arenas – over a long career in academia.
The courses that I most often teach include structural analysis and design courses. As codes and standards change, the technical content that I present must also change. Seminars and webinars by ASCE, ACI, and AISC play a critical role in this – I believe most practicing engineers also use this as a means to stay current technically. The challenge that I have as a teacher is in maintaining the ability to facilitate learning by students who have different learning styles, to keep up with each generation’s preferred mode of acquiring knowledge and communication, and to keep up with technology in the classroom. I prefer to teach at a blackboard using five different colors of chalk by working many example problems, with all my students present in the classroom – complemented with field trips to actual job sites.
So I’ve resisted using different alternative course delivery techniques such as synchronous online delivery, taped PowerPoint lectures, although I was aware of them through my active regular participation in the American Society of Engineering Education’s annual conference.
The abrupt COVID requirement of social distancing has forced me to rethink how I teach. Through webinars given by my university and other online sources, I quickly researched the pros and cons of each type of methodology, although fair and robust testing and grading are still a challenge. Now my students can choose to come to class (with a mask and limited seating), attend in real time online, or view the taped lecture on demand – and I’ve pretaped certain PowerPoint lectures. Will I continue to do this after the COVID challenge is over? Yes, and no. I’ll probably always tape every lecture so that they are available for students to review later. Using online real-time lecturing and canned PowerPoint lectures – great if weather is bad (New Orleans suffers from hurricanes and tropical storms) or if I am traveling.
Research requires being on the edge of science and technology. It is critical to keep up with the focus areas of funding agencies and industry’s R&D needs. I have served on review panels for a variety of agencies. To keep current in the understanding of fellow colleagues’ work, regular attendance and presenting at technical conferences with focus areas in alignment with my research interests, and serving on technical committees, have helped me. This also has helped me to develop a network of potential collaborators.
Finally, to maintain currency in the area of service – if the focus is on students and industry – requires that I reach out to actual and potential employers of my students and maintain those relationships. The vehicle I use for this is active participation in local technical and professional organizations (ASCE is my No. 1).
Strategy manager, Florida International University
Keeping up in an academic career today requires a tailored technological proficiency that involves both learning to use a tool and also to teach with it. No matter if it is a compact technical software or a huge learning management system cloud-platform, we teachers should maintain practical knowledge, plus a dash extra to be able to design a learning process for students (who are usually tech-savvier than us).
To keep current on technology changes, I begin with maintaining a change-driven mindset. I continuously make the case to myself that more changes are needed. Even if a change is not actually required, I always force myself to make use of different tools and approaches. This pushes me to be learning continuously. For instance, I try to use new learning support tools and methodologies every semester. This requires taking time to learn them, to (re)develop course content based on them, and to utilize them within the design of the learning environment. The result, at minimum, is that I can both help my students learn new things and also respond well to the continuously changing domain of “remote learning.”
Staying current requires paying with our most valuable asset: time. However, no matter what field of work we’re in, trying a new tool or technology is always a great investment. Because when change is prioritized, it becomes part of the routine, and then can be used as a tool to keep ready and competitive.
Kenneth R. Mika
Project engineer, Geosyntec Consultants, Green Bay, Wisconsin
I stay current on evolving technology changes in my work in a few ways. One way is by being involved with professional groups that stay abreast of new technologies, means, and methods for the work that I do. Attending specialty technical conferences in those professional groups is one way of learning about new technology.
When possible, I try to attend local and regional ASCE conferences that have several technical sessions I am interested in. I also try to attend Battelle and Western Dredging Association when I want to learn more about new technologies in more niche sectors like contaminated sediments.
If possible, I also try to get on a planning committee for the technical conferences, which allows me to meet innovative and cutting-edge professionals. By making those connections, I am sometimes able to stay on top of cutting-edge technology ahead of the information coming out at a conference or in a paper.
Ph.D., P.E., CPM, M.ASCE
Director, project management and Powell Bill program; assistant director, Division of Planning and Programming, North Carolina Department of Transportation
I remember what was called the Y2K (year 2000) problem, which was supposed to affect lots of computer systems in our department and the world. It made me always keep up with technology trends and plan ahead – things like big data, KPI, the AWS cloud, and now virtual meeting tools due to COVID-19.
My job as a director for departmental mission-critical programs means that pausing and waiting are not in my dictionary. I work very hard with our team to analyze upcoming technologies and assess whether they fit within our IT strategy and budget. I stay open-minded, always aware that changing technologies can help us in all areas of our business.
Owner and principal engineer, MEFI Engineering, Walla Walla, Washington
This question seems straightforward but is actually quite nuanced. First you have the young engineer who is using the latest technology, such as Autodesk Civil 3D, REVIT, etc. Then you have the senior engineer, who is more concerned about public policy changes. Both must stay current.
To complicate the matter is the size of the organization. In large organizations the line between the junior engineer and the senior engineer is quite clear. In smaller firms and organizations, that delineation becomes blurred.
My approach to remaining current on evolving technologies has been to be active in ASCE committees. My alternative method is to participate in ASCE webinars, which are included in each year’s membership dues. In addition, I participate in online learning with Eagle Point, IMAGINiT Technologies, CAD Learning, and others.