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Civil Engineering Overview

James E. Davis, P.E.
Executive Director
(served through 2002)

American Society of Civil Engineers
Reston, VA



 
B.S. Civil Engineering, North Carolina State University
M.S. Regional Planning, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
M.S. Civil Engineering, North Carolina State University
"As Executive Director of ASCE, I provide leadership on various initiatives including visioning, strategic planning, and long-range financial planning. I manage the day-to-day affairs of the Society and provide direction and support to a staff of 240 and an active volunteer leadership of over 7,500."
"To prepare for the challenges they will face, students must gain project management and communication skills, learn foreign languages, and be proficient with computers."


Davis: "Professional associations give students an opportunity to come face to face with leaders in the profession, and to understand the teaching side of it, the business side of it, the government side of it. And to choose which way they want to go."

Davis: "You can't have civilization without having civil engineers. We build the quality of life, we maintain the quality of life. And as long as people have a demand for higher and higher quality of life there'll be a demand for civil engineers."

Davis: "I decided to study civil engineering when I was a sophomore in high school. And it's sort of ironic, but I picked up a brochure that ASCE produced, and it said Your Career in Civil Engineering. And after looking at that, and reading through it -- and it talked about the different disciplines within civil engineering -- transportation, hydraulics, construction, design, structural design. And it was just fascinating. And I can remember now, I was in geometry class, and at that moment I decided I was going to be a civil engineer. Lo and behold, I didn't think that 30 years later I would be working for the American Society of Civil Engineers."

Q: When did you decide to study civil engineering?
Davis:
I decided to study civil engineering when I was a sophomore in high school. And it's sort of ironic, but I picked up a brochure that ASCE produced, and it said Your Career in Civil Engineering. After looking at it, and reading through it it talked about the different disciplines within civil engineering -- transportation, hydraulics, construction, design, structural design, etc., it was just fascinating. I can remember now, I was in geometry class, and at that moment I decided I was going to be a civil engineer. Lo and behold, I didn't think that 30 years later I would be working for the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Q: Where did you go to school -- undergrad -- and talk about your course load, how you zeroed in on your specialty.
Davis:
Well as I said, once I decided to be a civil engineer, there were a limited number of civil engineering schools. I think there are like 237 civil engineering schools in this country. But back in the 60's when I was picking a school there were probably 50 top schools. And I applied to about ten of the top schools, including MIT and Carnegie Mellon, but I ended up at North Carolina State University because it was financial. And it was also in Raleigh, where I grew up. And I have a bachelor's in civil engineering from North Carolina State University. I have a master's in regional planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is another story. Also, I have a master's in civil engineering, again, from North Carolina State University. I worked on my PhD at the University of Maryland here in College Park, and I finished ... work, and got promoted and never finished school. But that's sort of my academic background. I had a lot of training subsequent to that in management at Harvard, and at the University of Pennsylvania.

Q: Was there anything throughout your education that you found particularly difficult, or, on the other side of that, easy?
Davis:
Difficult? Civil engineering is difficult. It's very complex when you start talking about designing and building things that people use in their day-to-day lives and never really think about. Designing an airport, or designing a highway bridge, or developing water systems that you drink. Or sanitary systems. So it's all very complex, but it was a lot of fun. And under no circumstance would I think any part of it is easy, but I would say it was difficult but fun.

Q: Did you participate in any co-ops or internships while you were an undergrad or in graduate school?
Davis:
Well, I think co-ops and internships are great, but during my time you've got to realize that the country was in war. We were at war in Vietnam even though we didn't declare war. If you didn't finish in your four-year time frame you were off to war. And we worked hard to finish in four years, which meant we had to take 18, 19 hours per semester, which was a really extraordinarily heavy load. And we had to finish within the four-year window. So a couple of summers I went to summer school in order to maintain that pace of graduating within four years. Civil engineers today graduate in about 4.7 years, so it was a whole different mix then, and we didn't have time for co-ops. I think a four-year program is all that was recognized at that point in time. A five-year program would have put you right as a candidate for the draft.

Q: So in lieu of, I guess, co-ops, what kind of engineering-specific activities did you participate in? Was it just mostly course work and taking the classes to get the degree?
Davis:
When you have 18 hours a semester the most you can do is have fun in labs. We didn't have an opportunity to get out and work while I was an undergraduate. Not at all.

Q: Do you find that you use a lot of what you learned in college in the workplace?
Davis:
For 20 years I actually worked in civil engineering, and my specialty was transportation. So we were designing and building railroads, airports, and I did a lot of highway work. And then finally I worked for a shipping company where we built ports around the world. One of the things that I learned in graduate school that I remember was Queue Theory. When you are faced with a situation where you have 20 lanes of traffic and 40-50 trucks backed up in each lane and you're trying to get those containers on a vessel, and you don't make money until the truck gets on the vessel, Queue Theory becomes very important. I think the planning that I went through in planning school comes through more often because we're now always trying to seek consensus. We have a lot of committees, seven or eight hundred committees, doing work at ASCE at any point in time. And our goal is to make sure that we can bring them to consensus.

Q: Do you think that there's anything that colleges could be doing in order to prepare students better?
Davis:
I think that one, the bachelors degree cannot be the professional degree for any engineering discipline, especially civil engineering. I think the master's level is really where you should consider yourself a professional. Saying that, then, as an undergraduate, you need to take more courses. Especially civil engineers because we deal with the public on a day-to-day basis. And it's important that civil engineers know how to communicate, orally and in writing. And also be able to stand up at a public hearing and say things in a very simplistic way, versus giving all of the technical operational entities of a water treatment plant, just say that guys, we do things and give you clean water. You turn on your shower this morning -- you can take a shower thanks to us, versus telling them all the technical aspects of tertiary treatment at a water treatment plant.

Q: Is there anything that students could do to prepare themselves?
Davis:
I think that students should get involved in the community that they're working in. I think that civil engineering students should get out and work with the city departments, the traffic departments, or the planning departments. And even give free labor. Because what they want to do is understand how they're going to fit into this whole work force at the appropriate time. Also, they can do a lot of activities for high schools. They can go visit high schools and communicate to students in the fourth, fifth, sixth grade about the importance of math and science. Around the seventh or eighth grade they can steer themselves. But if they don't do it early on they won't be able to do that. They also should be part of a debate club, and learn how to manage disagreement, because throughout their careers there will be a lot of people that'll be on the other side. And if they can work through those kinds of discussions and try to get win-win solutions I think they'll have gleaned a tremendous amount of knowledge.

Q: How about professional associations?
Davis:
Professional associations give students an opportunity to come face to face with leaders in the profession, and to understand the teaching side of it, the business side of it, the government side of it. And to choose which way they want to go. Do they want to be a researcher, do they want to be a government official, or do they want to design and construct facilities, or manage the companies that design and construct the facilities, or just be a member of industry. Beyond that, we take a student from the time they graduate, after they've gone through the preparatory stage, to the time that they retire. And we have programs that help them every stage of the way. Because when they graduate one of the things they want to do is get some real solid design experience so they can get registered. Because it's only through registration that we then fulfill our mission to help people build a quality of life. And we have to be technically proficient, and that's sort of our badge to the public, is that guys, we're qualified to design and to build, and you can drive over it at 80 miles an hour on a wet night and feel secure. And so we have programs each stage of the way. When they move up to a project manager stage they can do certain things. When they move up to an owner stage they can do other things.


 


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