Labs, field trips imperative

Almost that time again—time to pick classes for the next semester! I’m going to try my hardest to avoid saying that time flies by and I’ll be a senior next year, but I thought it’d be okay to mention it right at the beginning of this notebook. Instead, I’m going to explore how my classes have been up to this point and what I’d like to see in the last few semesters of my education here at Rensselaer.

I noticed this semester that none of my classes have any labs associated with them, quite strange, I believe, for a civil engineer who will be practicing in the field as part of my career. The three civil engineering courses I am currently enrolled in are Matrix Structural Analysis, Applied Hydrology and Hydraulics, and Concrete Design. Each of these three courses is rigorously calculation-oriented. However, when I enter my full time career, I do not intend to just sit with a pencil and paper in my hand for eight hours straight. There must be another side to civil engineering, or engineering in general.

I guess a lab for MSA would be difficult as it is specifically on constructing matrices for analyzing structures, yet I hope to see in my future structural engineering courses a hands-on lab in which we get to build miniature structures based on the designs from class. In every lecture I go to, the thought of where this structure exists in real life often crosses my mind. I may raise my hand to ask this question or whisper it to a friend next to me, yet there are times I’ll leave class wondering for the rest of the day the reality of the problems we analyzed in class.

This barrier of analyzing structures on paper and not knowing the real-life application of the structure is a bit aggravating. In my Introduction to Structural Engineering class, we took a field trip to the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center to examine the connections and the members holding it in place. This was very interesting but only happened once in the entire semester!

Rensselaer should place a larger focus on bringing the many calculations performed on pencil and paper, and even computers, to life; whether that be having more field trips, labs, or guest speakers. Currently, the Civil Engineering Department tries to hosts one-hour seminars with professors and researchers from other universities every other week, yet the student attendance, as I have noticed in the few I have gone to, has been very low. These seminars should be incorporated into courses, to guarantee students attend them! In my Hydrology course this semester, Professor Young invited one of his past colleagues to speak about their career as a civil engineer.

Additionally, as a member of the RPI Student Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, I have listened to many guest speakers from various companies discuss what they do in their careers, and again the student attendance seems quite low.

I would love to see Rensselaer progress towards developing more well-rounded engineers inside and outside the class. To ensure most students take advantage of field trips, labs, and guest speakers, there should be designated times set within the syllabus for these potential opportunities.

Another suggestion I have to build a more well-rounded engineer is to discuss failure more in class. As of right now, students at RPI who decide to skip a class usually skip because they don’t want to attend a lecture in which they can easily read the textbook to obtain the information from the lecture for that day. To avoid this, lectures should be more exciting, with information discussed that you will not find in the textbook—or specifically the discussion of failure.

In my Professional Development II course this semester, I needed to write a research paper on an engineering failure. You may have guessed it, but I researched the failure of a massive structure—the collapse of the Hartford Civic Center. With every article I read, it hinted that the problem with many undergraduate aspiring engineers is the lack of knowing about the potential for structures to fail, leading the young professionals into failure themselves. Failures and collapses exist, and should be incorporated somehow into the curriculum of more engineering courses here at Rensselaer.

With these suggestions, I wish to see a change in the next few years. Even if it does not happen, I am very thankful for my education at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and am looking forward to doing what the school prides itself on—changing the world!