Climate change, increase in severe storms and other disasters make contributions of civil engineers to safety and well-being of communities even more vital
Humans have been building ports and harbors, buildings, bridges, dams, roads, and other types of “civil infrastructure” since the dawn of civilization. The first practice of civil engineering may have taken place in Egypt and Mesopotamia between 4000 and 2000 B.C. France established the first school for civil engineering in the 1700s and the first civil engineering degree in the U.S. was conferred as far back as 1835.
But don’t get too comfortable thinking that the field of civil engineering is settled just yet.
“When I hear people saying civil engineering is a fully mature technological field, I ask myself, what world are you living in? It's continuously evolving," said Julio Ramirez, Purdue University Karl H. Kettelhut Professor in Civil Engineering.
Today, technologies such as data mining, remote sensing, image processing, and development of advanced materials promise to yield relentless advances in civil engineering just as they are in other disciplines.
“Technology is changing at such accelerated pace, and we have to learn to evolve with it, literally with a life-long learning attitude” Ramirez said. “You need to have the tools to be a contributor and benefit from it.”
Likewise, building codes – which exist to support designs achieving life safety and other important performance objectives as a minimum standard of practice by law – change every four to six years, or more often if supported by new knowledge.
Moreover, it looks like it won’t be too long before we are engineering habitats and other structures in extreme environments extending all the way to the moon and subsequently Mars. But without experience in those environments, and lacking building codes or standards, there is much work to be done before that happens.
And back on Earth, there’s climate change and the more frequent and more extreme weather events that are coming with it, as we’re reminded with the devastation left by every hurricane, tornado, flood, drought or wildfire.
How we assess the state of buildings and infrastructure in the wake of a disaster such as a hurricane could change markedly with the new technology, said Ramirez, who serves as director of the National Science Foundation Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) Network Coordination Office (NCO) Center.
Currently, the process is heavily manual – an assessment building by building, structure by structure. The process is laborious, not fast, costly and potentially dangerous.
“Manual means you have to put boots on the ground and send people in there,” Ramirez said.
In the not-so-distant future, civil engineers may find themselves using tools such as an AI trained on and working with a database of images from past events. They could employ it to examine images from a current disaster, which can be collected remotely, and assess the damages on a regional scale – instead of building by building, thousands of buildings, bridges, power lines and so forth at once, almost in real time and at scale.
The result could not only aid in recovery efforts but yield knowledge to guide engineers and policymakers in efforts to improve the resiliency of a community and mitigate damage from future events.
Purdue’s fully online master’s degree in Civil Engineering with its Infrastructure, Resiliency and Sustainability track is designed to help prepare working professionals for that future. The flexible curriculum offers the opportunity to take courses related to big data, AI and machine learning in addition to offering a strong foundation in the analysis, design and construction of civil infrastructure, with a special focus on sustainable materials, natural resilience, and new advancements in infrastructure planning and construction. The online master’s program is ranked #2 nationally by U.S. News & World Report. It is taught by same the world-class faculty doing cutting-edge research in civil engineering on Purdue’s flagship campus.