Hi,

I don't want to spoil the party here, but every time I work on ABET accreditation things, program criteria, and the like, the following two ideas recurrently hit me. In my defense, I must state that I know how CE academic programs are structured in the US, in Chile (very well; 4 yrs BSCE + 3 semesters professional coursework + 9 months thesis), and in a few European countries (that have the 3 + 2 years system), and I have attempted to teach Civil Engineering for exactly 30 years (hydraulics, intro engrg hydrology, open-channel flow, environmental science + graduate courses in physical hydrology, engrgr hydrology, river geomorphology, ecohydraulics and ecohydrology, and a series of inter- or even transdisciplinary grad courses).

1. The vast majority of CE students and graduates -even bright ones- do not know how to apply calculus to even the most simple real-world situations. They have had at least Calc I through III, differential equations, calc-based physics, and in some cases numerical calculus (aka numerical analysis), Calc IV, etc., but it's all been about "playing games with the math folks." Basically, they have learned definitions and procedures by heart, and have been able to successfully regurgitate them during assessments. How can we assess, as engineering faculty, that "they can apply knowledge of mathematics through differential equations...."? By having them compute the area enclosed under a straight (or, God forbid, a quadratic) line? (or read below a not-so-good example from a very common hydraulics textbook)

An example of this: one of the first and most basic concepts taught in Calc II is that of the mean of a function, obtained as the area under the function between a and b, divided by the distance (b-a). Do students really learn this concept in Math? Yes? Then, why is it that when I give them a continuous time series of discharge, sampled every 15 minutes (say, values at 10:00, 10:15, 10:30, 10:45, and 11:00), and ask them to compute the mean hourly discharge between 10 and 11, they inevitably think that they must add the 5 values and divide by 5? Nobody ever realizes that the first (at 10:00) and last (at 11:00) values must be weighed by 1/2, and only the occasional, brightest student in the class, realizes that a key aspect to understand whether such mean is accurate or not relates to the frequency at which the actual process fluctuates (i.e., if streamflow goes up and down like crazy, every 3 minutes, then it is obviously useless to sample the signal once every 15 minutes, and those data should not be used to attempt to compute a mean at all... and, thinking like an engineer, you should install a new sensor that samples at least once per minute!). The last aspects that I mention are those that really matter, not "only knowing how to compute the integral of f(x) from a to b" - no matter how complicated f(x) is! Heck: even though hydrology textbooks insist on having functions i(t), Q(t), etc. (for rainfall intensity and streamflow, respectively), and applying linear systems theory and calculus, the fact is that there are no analytical expressions for intensity in real rainfall events: we only have the actual, measured data (totalized every 15 minutes in the US, every 1 min in Europe)!

Another example: when teaching how to delineate a watershed in hydrology, I need my students to understand what a "saddle" is (topographically speaking). When I say "understand," I mean visualize, recognize, being able to draw one, being able to tell me a story about it ("we climbed the trail along Sad Creek valley, until we finally hit the pass, between the two peaks; we stopped and took pictures of both alpine valleys with their meadows"; yes, that's the way I explain what a saddle is, and that's the way they understand). Guess what: this exact same concept is "taught" in every single Calc III class, but can students visualize what it actually is?

The question is: Why this state of affairs? The answer I propose is: because there has not been any real learning! They have just learned to jump through the hoops that differential and integral calculus instructors have thrown at them, but they can't apply it, not even to exceedingly simple real-world situations. They have drowned in equations and methods, learnt procedural "hoops," repeated them multiple times (if they are "good" students and they actually study), but they still don't know or understand anything new (or much useful, for that matter), beyond such procedures! How good is this for the actual education of Civil Engineers? You also know what my answer is here...

In my mind, there are only two solutions to this:

(i) Stop playing the proverbial ostrich, realize what I stated above, and basically dump calculus (or most of it) from engineering curricula, which would give us more time to teach engineering concepts the right way (see comment 2 below), or else

(ii) Have engineering faculty interested in math teach these courses, cut the material pretty drastically, and teach it exclusively with applications, so it makes sense. That way we would also motivate students, as they typically see very little actual engineering concepts and applications in their first couple of years in school. Taught this way, there would be a chance that Calc concepts would actually stick, and then in hydrology, when I teach flow through porous media, students would hopefully understand why it is that "you need to apply calculus to understand how long it takes the Brita filter to empty, because the head is continuously decreasing as more water is being filtered".

Note that the same thing should happen with Statistics and Probability, wherever it is still taught to CE students by mathematicians.

2. In the US, are Civil Engineers considered to be technicians or higher (i.e., thinking) professionals? This is an important and profound question, with important consequences. Because if one teaches the first, then rote teaching and repetition of procedures are good enough (even if no one understands why they are doing it, how it actually works, when it doesn't work, what are the assumptions behind it, why they would expect the 'method' not to work in a specific case, and a long list of etceteras...).

Good examples of what I just described are: (i) the typical way that Calculus classes are assessed, (ii) giving students an exercise in class, then repeating the same exercise in the homework (but with different numbers!), and then repeating it again in the test (with different numbers again... see? "it is a different exercise if the numbers are different, right?"), and (iii) books with dozens of repetitive exercises, like those Schaum series. When I explain to my students how I teach and how I assess, I tell them that the typical way is like the "apples and the oranges:" You learn to juggle with 3 apples, but are told "oh wait! the exam is going to be different!" and you get a bit scared... You then show up for the exam and are given 3 oranges (and of the same diameter as the original apples, to make it even simpler...")!!

In my mind, learning rote procedures is good for technicians, not for engineers; when I assess my students, they must be able to apply to different situations! They also must be able to realize when their answer is "off," i.e., have a notion of the expected order of magnitude or "back of the envelope" value for their result. When dealing with more complicated problems (I'm not using the word "complex" here, not to open the can of worms that is the definition of "complex engineering problems;" maybe will leave that for another comment on some other day), they must have the ability to find lower and upper bounds, etc.

But if our internal definition of an "engineer" is that of a "higher profession" (I'm lacking better words, here), then teaching actual concepts -and making sure in your assessments that students really understand them- should be the norm. This implies a whole lot more: First, the faculty would need to truly understand before teaching (versus "just knowing the procedure or method"), and in class they would have to: (i) give context for the material (why does it matter, where do we actually use this, etc.), (ii) actually explain it (real explanations, with analogies, with feedback from students to make sure they are truly understanding instead of just nodding, with random deeper questions, etc.), (iii) clearly emphasize things like orders of magnitude ("no, it cannot rain 42,300 inches during a storm"), typical units and USCS/SI conversions (with actual visualization of these units, as it seems this is not taught in grade school; many students have no clue what 1 m3 is, or what a liter is, so that they very easily say things like: 1 L = 1000 m3 in the tests -even tough I list conversions!, because they have no feel whatsoever for the units), typical applications, typical mistakes/misunderstandings, assumptions that need to hold, cases in which it would be a bad idea to apply a specific concept or method, etc.

Most importantly, assessments would not be based on rote repetition either, but would focus on testing whether students truly understand the concepts, not only the basic procedures!

If hydraulics and hydrology textbooks were written following these notions, they would contain 5 times less "methods" and "procedures", but a whole lot more explanation, and we would not have the typical problem (attempting to use calculus in hydraulics) of a "laminar flow profile in a 1 m diameter pipe with water going 2 m/s, " because it is immediately clear that in such case the flow would have a Reynolds in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and the flow would be absolutely turbulent, and never laminar ("oh... but shoot... it is harder to integrate a turbulent flow profile than a laminar one, so this wouldn't serve to tick the box that says "yes, they did apply calculus in higher engineering courses," and then "Passed: more than 70% of the sample performed above adequate" - sorry that I am being sarcastic here). Such textbooks would, e.g., actually explain what a hydraulic radius is, with visualizations and stories about what it represents ("kind of a mean distance to the nearest wall"), why it was a needed concept in the first place, etc. instead of just writing Rh = A/P. Same thing for kinematic viscosity, for runoff coefficient, etc... Engineers must understand concepts in depth (again: real learning), before applying them and using pre-packaged modelling softwares and designing! Now, how do you teach "real-learning hydraulics" in 42 hours, of which 6 or 7 are for the quizzes and tests… that's tough…

If you found this stub of a discussion interesting, the best article I have read that touches on these issues (but coming from a different perspective) is "Plug and Chug, Cram and Flush," by David Bella, 2003, ASCE Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, 129(1). With so much past and ongoing research on "engineering education," it just beats me that this excellent piece of work, that elegantly identifies so many critical aspects of the way we teach engineers, has only been cited 18 times in almost 20 years...

Now, to conclude my rambling remarks, the million-dollar question: how do you do all of these things in only 4 years, with 42-hours courses, of which about a third to 40% are Gen-Ed and other non-engineering classes? That is something that I wish the criteria would tell us, beyond asking us to keep adding more and more things to the CE curriculum, when we don't even have time to teach the CE part of it, at least in the depth we should...

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Claudio Meier Ph.D., Ing., M.ASCE

Associate Professor of Civil Engineering

University of Memphis

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Original Message:

Sent: 04-29-2021 03:19 PM

From: Herbert Raybourn

Subject: 17. General Comments

Please reply to this discussion to provide general comments, suggestions, etc. that are related to multiple or span across criterion phrases. This discussion may also be used to provide your comments, suggestions, etc. about items or issues that are completely missing from the draft program criteria.