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  • 1.  Lying to the Kids

    Posted 12-18-2023 08:06 AM
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    Ever tried to persuade a young person to pursue a career in civil engineering?  Were you completely truthful?

    "I build things" Workers build, Civil Engineers--including GC project engineers--plan.
    "I tell people how to build things right" Better, but we usually get paid to give optional advice.
    "I make sure [buildings, roads, trains, etc] work well" If your contract includes making sure, you need a new lawyer.  Or six.
    "Every day is different" What about those twelve near-identical shop drawings you worked on for three weeks?
    "There's free candy on my coworker's desk, literally all the time"  Okay, that one holds up, ask my dentist.

    Technicalities, yes, but I have talked to colleagues who feel they got scammed into a less cool profession than promised.  See attached meme to this point, courtesy of Chris Siegel.  

    It's a shame too: many engineers feel a child-like enthusiasm for their work, but actual children don't get excited about things like multistory transfer trusses, or ductile connection detailing.  Are we misrepresenting our profession to young people?  Can we make the excitement we feel about Civil Engineering relatable?

    Christian Parker P.E., M.ASCE
    Structural Project Engineer
    Princeton NJ

  • 2.  RE: Lying to the Kids

    Posted 12-19-2023 11:01 AM

    I find it difficult sometimes to explain my job to adults, and kids are a whole other level of complexity. What we do is difficult to boil down and not make it sound more boring that we think it is.

    This posts reminds me of a conversation I had after college graduation with my preschool class at church.

    "Guys, this is Ms. Heidi's last week as your teacher." - me

    "yeah, she has to go to Tulsa to be a big engineer" - 5 year old's interpretation of what his parents told him

    * slight pause before the same kid spoke again *

    "oh! on a train!" - same 5 year old

    "Well, not on a train. That's a different kind of engineer."

    (The disappointment on all their faces was very clear at this point.)

    A few said they would miss me.

    "Well, you can tell your parents that if you guys visit Tulsa, they can let me know and maybe you can come visit." -me

    "Will we get to see a train?!" - another 5 year old boy

    "Maybe, but only because my apartment is by the train tracks... I don't work there."

    Later, they wanted to know what I do if I don't work with trains. I tried to explain that when someone builds a building, I help design things we need like water lines and sidewalks, and I try to make it so that it doesn't flood. They they asked if I could build a new Hastings (the one in town had closed recently), and I said I don't get to pick what kind of building is designed. Once again, they were disappointed.  

    I was mentioning this to an older mechanical engineer afterward, and he said "oh, all the kids think I drive trains. I don't correct them anymore because they think trains are cooler than if I tried to explain what I do."

    The last time I spoke with high school students, I tried to summarize Civil Engineering in the introduction by listing ways that they are all impacted by the designs of Civil Engineers on a daily basis -- clean drinking water, sewage removal and treatment, roadways and bridges, accessible sidewalks, safe building structures, and flood reduction and prevention. Then I went into "a day in the life of a site development civil engineer" and described how my job can be broken down into understanding needs, solving problems, and ensuring quality. I then broke each one down into 2 or 3subitems.

    Heidi C. Wallace, P.E., M.ASCE
    Tulsa, OK

  • 3.  RE: Lying to the Kids

    Posted 01-16-2024 05:43 PM

    Thanks, Heidi.  This is a wonderful story.  Those kids were lucky to have you!

    One takeaway I get from your experience is that the depth of explanation has to vary with age.  On the most basic level, we can always point out things we work on and say, "engineers help make that happen".  The high schoolers you spoke to had enough background knowledge for a broader view of the societal impacts of civil engineering, and can probably wrap their heads around some of the "how".  I've presented to college students, and found them pretty eager for details of how we spend our time, who we answer to, and what kind of projects we work on: as Chris points out in his response below, we should promote realistic expectations when people are actually considering what to study in college, or where to work after.  And I can still geek out to my peers about those ductile connection details.

    Trains are undeniably cool, though.  Some days, I wish I drove a train for a living.

    Christian Parker P.E., M.ASCE
    Structural Project Engineer
    Chicago IL

  • 4.  RE: Lying to the Kids

    Posted 12-28-2023 11:26 AM

    Maybe the best truthful way was getting kids interested in civil engineering is telling them that civil engineers are like all the people that work behind the scenes that make movies and shows possible. You wake up in the morning and turn the light on, civil engineers are involved in getting power to your house. You take a shower, civil engineers are involved in getting clean water to your house and getting the dirty water away from your home and clean it again before dumping it into the environment. You drive on the road to get to school, civil engineers are involved in building the road and the school. We're called civil engineers because civilization isn't possible without us. The work isn't mind blowing but as a civil engineer literally everywhere you look you can say "a civil engineer was involved in building that."  

    Dustin Leduc A.M.ASCE
    Field Engineer
    Shakopee MN

  • 5.  RE: Lying to the Kids

    Posted 01-16-2024 05:43 PM

    I like this metaphor, and I think you're right on point about emphasizing the outcomes and straying away from the day-to-day details, unless they ask of course.  The way we work may seem strange or confusing to young people, but the things we work on are pretty relatable.

    Christian Parker P.E., M.ASCE
    Structural Project Engineer
    Chicago IL

  • 6.  RE: Lying to the Kids

    Posted 12-28-2023 04:44 PM

    John Oliver has a decent bit on this very topic. 


    I agree that it can be difficult to make one's job sound interesting while being accurate. Trying to promote realistic expectations is important. 

    Christopher Seigel P.E., M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer