Henry Petroski, Ph.D., P.E.
Chairman, Civil and
Environmental Engineering Dept.
Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
"I am currently
Chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental
Engineering at Duke University. As an individual faculty member,
I am expected to teach and carry out research, which includes
writing up results in the form of articles and books."
"Read about the
history of civil engineers and civil engineering to better
appreciate the great role they have played in shaping the world
as we know it. Also, notice the contributions of civil engineers
that are all around us, in visible structures like bridges and
skyscrapers as well as in less visible components of our
infrastructures like water treatment plants."
"The role of a civil engineer is just very, very broad across all aspects
of society. And it's a very responsible position to be in. But ultimately
the civil engineer is serving society, and making sure that the
infrastructure is in place, and is well-maintained. And also being
responsible to look ahead and predict what is going to need attention down
the line to make sure that there are roads in place, there are airports
adequate to handle the traffic that's going to develop. To make sure that
there's enough of a clean water supply, to make sure that sanitary
conditions are preserved by making sure that a sewer system is in place."
"Oh, I think the engineering profession is very fulfilling. It certainly
has been for me. It makes it possible to live a very comfortable life. It
is a profession, and there's a certain pride and respect that comes with
that. It's very people-serving. Without question, engineering is really
the basis of civilization in many ways. We wouldn't have what we have
today if it weren't for engineering. I mean, the comforts of having
shelter. The food -- agricultural engineering provides enough food to feed
a nation and the world. Medicine is a form of engineering in many ways,
and engineers contribute a lot to the medical profession in developing
instruments and tools that help in restoring health or keeping people
healthy. Engineering is really a wonderful profession."
"Well, the kinds of skills that engineers have to bring with them into the
21st Century are probably communication skills, communication interpreted
very broadly. And that includes good computer skills, knowing how to find
one's way around the Internet, knowing how to use the computer to produce
graphical images, drawings. What engineers used to do with a T-square and
pencil they now really have to do with a computer keyboard and mouse.
These are very important skills. Putting together a prospectus or a
proposal for an idea is a very important skill that an engineer has to
learn, has to develop really, because in working and communicating with
other people you really have to be able to make a case for what it is that
you are bringing to the table."
"What students learn in school is going to be different from what they do
ten, twenty years out from graduation. But what's going to be common,
what's going to be constant in that time, is the method that engineering
students learn, the method of how to approach problems and how to solve
problems. So their basic tools are never obsolete. The state of the art
will change, but the basic tools that the students learn will be good for
life. My advice to students is to pay attention to the fundamentals, to
pay attention to the common features of the various courses. Whether they
be in transportation, or structures, or environmental engineering, there
are common approaches that all of those areas use. And catching on to that
really makes you a much better engineer."
"Well, when somebody's
enjoying a career it does tend to pervade their whole life. And sometimes
it becomes a family joke when you go on vacation and you go out of your
way to see a new bridge. But it all can be very pleasant and enjoyable."
Q: Can you tell me about
the way that civil engineering was taught when you had your courses when
you were an undergrad? Do you think that it's changed since you've been
There have been some changes,
but a lot has remained the same. Generally speaking, students, when I went
to school, which is about 35 years ago now, took more courses. Lab courses
were often distinct from lecture courses, and you were graded separately
for them. There was a lot more, I would say, contact hours, generally
speaking. It took more credits to get a degree than it does now. Of
course, the computer was nonexistent when I was a student. We used slide
rules. Slide rules were a necessary piece of equipment for every
engineering student. A lot of engineering students were known by the slide
rules that they had attached to their belts. Somewhere around the 1970's
after I began teaching, the slide rule became replaced by the electronic
calculator. That was a very interesting period, actually. Professors at
that time were very uncertain about whether students should be allowed to
bring electronic calculators into class because it was thought that they
might have an unfair advantage over the students that used the slide rule.
But the computer - calculator revolution happened so quickly that it
became a moot point, and now everybody of course just uses a calculator.
Every now and then people that teach the way I do ask students in our
classes, how many of you know how to use a slide rule. The number is
decreasing every year. It's just about zero now. The only students that
seem to know how to use a slide rule are those who have been taught by
their father or their aunt or uncle who grew up with a slide rule.
Q: What drew you to civil
engineering finally, though? At what point did you stop considering
yourself a mechanical engineer and start thinking of yourself as a civil
Well, when I came to Duke
University, I was offered a job in a civil engineering department here to
teach mechanics, which is an important part of engineering generally.
Engineering mechanics involves itself with forces and motions and how
bodies react to forces, how they move when a force is applied, how they
deform, how they change shape. And these are all very important
fundamentals for any branch of engineering. When I became part of the
civil engineering department I felt I had to know as much about civil
engineering as I could so that I could teach the students in the context
of civil engineering. So I began to read a lot and study a lot, especially
about structures. And then I began to write about structures and use civil
engineering examples almost exclusively in my early books.
Q: Can you talk a little
bit about the writing process and give us an example of how many you have
written, and what made you do it, and some titles?
Well, I've written as of now
about eight books. And the first book that I published was titled "To
Engineer is Human", and the subtitle was "The Role of Failure in
Successful Design". That was a book that was really prompted by a lot of
questions that acquaintances were asking me. Neighbors were asking me why
was it that bridges were failing. The Kansas City Hyatt Regency accident
occurred in 1981 and people were wondering, asking me in particular when
they knew I was an engineer, especially a civil engineer, why was it that
that structure failed. Don't engineers know how to design structures like
that after they've been doing it for so long. And I began to think about
questions like that because I didn't have a ready answer. And in thinking
about it I developed ideas about why structures do fail, why there are
accidents, why sometimes things go wrong. And it really took a whole book
to explain it adequately.
So you've obviously disproved the theory that engineers can't write,
or they can't communicate. Do you think that that's true? Is that
something you've found as you've been in your career?
No, I think it's a real misconception that engineers can't write or
can't communicate. I teach a course that is mainly sophomore
engineering students, and one of the requirements of that course is
for the students to write a major term paper that is a case study of
some engineering structure or some engineering project that
particularly interests them. And I find that the students really all
do a good job. They write well, and they get very excited about the
project that they're involved in. And they not only have to write it
up, but they also have to present it orally. And they do that well,
too. In other words, I think engineers really are, engineering
students and engineers are really excellent communicators. When
they're communicating something that they know about and they're
interested in, not just some arbitrary assignment that might be for
a, oh, let's say a speech course.
Q: What are some other
skills that engineers need to have? Young engineers coming into the
21st Century? Because things have been changing rapidly.
Well, the kinds of
skills that engineers have to bring with them into the 21st Century
are probably communication skills, communication interpreted very
broadly. And that includes good computer skills, knowing how to find
one's way around the Internet, knowing how to use the computer to
produce graphical images, drawings. What engineers used to do with a
T-square and pencil they now really have to do with a computer
keyboard and mouse.
These are very important skills. Putting together a prospectus or a
proposal for an idea is a very important skill that an engineer has
to learn, has to develop really, because in working and
communicating with other people you really have to be able to make a
case for what it is that you are bringing to the table. All of these
are really communication skills.