How can middle school students learn about civil engineering?

Read some cool books, ask questions, and get dirty…

By Sarah Jensen

Building the world’s longest bridge or designing the tallest skyscraper or planning a highway through Death Valley are big challenges — and, to 12- to 14-year-olds, decidedly cool ones. Middle school is not too early to lay the groundwork for a career in civil engineering (CE). As with any engineering field, students need to keep up their grades in math and science, but since CE focuses on the interaction of the built environment with the natural environment, they should also get acquainted with other disciplines. “It’s important to learn about ecology and environmental science as well,” says Roman Stocker, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT.

Opportunities for learning about CE are everywhere, Stocker says. Just as a young botanist must get down on her hands and knees to examine the liverworts along the riverbank, a budding civil engineer should go into the field to develop their powers of observation. Stocker’s own interest in fluid mechanics began in just that way. “I remember damming up water in the creek to make it flow in different patterns,” he recalls. “I had no specific goal; it was just fun.”

For those who don’t live close to a creek, Stocker suggests a trip to the library. He recommends David McCollough’s The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge and The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. “They’re great adventure stories,” he says, “and they give kids a sense of whether they’d enjoy taking that career path.”

Whether it’s through field work or book work, curiosity is what sets the future engineer apart. Do you wonder why waves produce patterns in the sediment along the seashore, or why a sandcastle needs to be built on wet sand? Then CE might be your thing. “Start by finding answers to those questions in a book or on the Internet,” says Stocker. “Then go back to the beach and test whether what you’ve read matches your experience.”

Your beach project will teach you some of the basics of coastal engineering, just as Stocker learned about fluid dynamics from rocks and a creek. You can learn just as much from noticing how much green space is lost during a paving project down your block, how the traffic in your neighborhood changes during a construction project, how the tides affect the shoreline, or what happens to the water on your street after a rainstorm.

“Civil engineering was born as engineering to serve society, and almost everything you see has a connection with it,” Stocker says. The best preparation for becoming a civil engineer is to heed his simple advice: “Always be curious about the world around you.”

Thanks to 14-year-old Rahul from Cambridge for this question.

Posted: September 11, 2012

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