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Civil Engineering: A Liberal Education Degree of the 21st Century

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Thinking Outside the BOKs: ABET, Ethics, Civil Engineering as Liberal Education, and 3-Year Degrees

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

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Paper Authors


Emily F. Cutrer Texas A&M University-Texarkana

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Emily F. Cutrer is President of Texas A&M University-Texarkana. Prior to this appointment in 2013, she served as Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at California State University San Marcos and dean of the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at Arizona State. She earned B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Melissa M. Nelson

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Ms. Melissa Nelson has received a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in International Relations, from the University of Texas at Tyler in 2016. She received a Master of Arts in Human Rights and Global Ethics from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom in January 2019. Her research interests are in the area of government, policy, and international relations.

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James K. Nelson Jr. P.E. Texas A&M University System

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Dr. James K. Nelson received a Bachelor of Civil Engineering degree from the University of Dayton in 1974. He received the Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in civil engineering from the University of Houston. During his graduate study, Dr. Nelson specialized in structural engineering. He is a registered professional engineer in three states, a Chartered Engineer in the United Kingdom, and a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He is also a member of the American Society for Engineering Education and the SAFE Association.
Prior to receiving his Ph.D. in 1983, Dr. Nelson worked as a design engineer in industry and taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Houston and Texas A&M University at Galveston. In industry he was primarily involved in design of floating and fixed structures for the offshore petroleum industry. After receiving his Ph.D., Dr. Nelson joined the civil engineering faculty at Texas A&M University. He joined the civil engineering faculty at Clemson University in 1989 as Program Director and founder of the Clemson University Graduate Engineering Programs at The Citadel and became Chair of Civil Engineering in 1998.
In July 2002, Dr. Nelson joined the faculty at Western Michigan University as Chair of Civil and Construction Engineering. At Western Michigan he started the civil engineering undergraduate and graduate degree programs and also chaired the Departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Industrial Design. In summer 2005 he joined the faculty at The University of Texas at Tyler. At UT Tyler he was the founding chair of the Department of Civil Engineering and instituted the bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. In 2006 he became the Dean of Engineering and Computer Science. Dr. Nelson returned to Texas A&M University in 2016 as the Director of Special Academic Initiatives for the Texas A&M University System.
Dr. Nelson's primary technical research interest is the behavior of structural systems. For almost 25 years he has been actively involved in evaluating the behavior of free-fall lifeboats and the development of analytical tools to predict that behavior. His research has formed the basis for many of the regulations of the International Maritime Organization for free-fall lifeboat performance. Since 1988, Dr. Nelson has served as a technical advisor to the United States Delegation to the International Maritime Organization, which is a United Nations Treaty Organization. In that capacity, he is a primary author of the international recommendation for testing free-fall lifeboats and many of the international regulations regarding the launch of free-fall lifeboats.
He has authored many technical papers that have been presented in national and international forums and co-authored three textbooks. Dr. Nelson chaired a national committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers for curriculum redesign supporting the civil engineering body of knowledge. He is actively engaged in developing strategies for enhancing the STEM education pipeline in Texas and nationally, and has testified before the Texas Senate and House Higher Education Committees in that regard. He served on a committee of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to develop a statewide articulation compact for mechanical engineering and chaired the councils for developing articulation compacts in other engineering and science disciplines. He also served on the Texas State Board of Education committee preparing the standards for career and technical education.

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In the 2004 report “The Engineer of 2020,” the National Academy of Engineering makes the bold contention that engineering is the liberal arts education of the 21st-Century. This contention stands in contrast to more widespread notions about engineers in general and civil engineers in particular. A 2010 article entitled “Engineering Perception” in AIChE ChEnected indicates that engineers see themselves as "book-smart", "socially challenged," and "myopic,” hardly the characteristics of a liberally educated individual. A 2011 article in IEEE Insights entitled “Engineers: Public Perception Matters” states “In the US, however, almost no engineers or scientists are engaged in high-level politics, and there is a virtual absence of engineers in our public policy debates.” And yet another editorial in Leadership and Management in Engineering in 2004 indicates that many perceive civil engineering in particular as no longer being considered a serious field of pursuit, that it does not have the cutting edge cachet of other fields more popular in the 21st century. The authors of this paper, while taking exception to the negative popular perceptions of civil engineering, offer a refinement on the National Academy’s view by contending, not that civil engineering is a liberal arts education, but that it might well be seen as the archetypal liberal education degree of the 21st century. This contention, the authors believe, is supported by the Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge, the ASCE Code of Ethics, and state licensing laws for engineering. In this paper the authors discuss a 21st-Century liberal education and its historic roots, and then demonstrate why a civil engineering education is indeed a liberal education of the 21st-Century.

Cutrer, E. F., & Nelson, M. M., & Nelson, J. K. (2019, June), Civil Engineering: A Liberal Education Degree of the 21st Century Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32508

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