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By: Noye, 2nd Year Civil Engineering
October 2016

When you meet someone new at university, it’s considered just good manners to ask what they’re studying. The more I’ve been asked this question the clearer it has become that, even amongst engineers, a surprising number of people (in my opinion anyway) don’t know what civil engineering is. Even I must admit to not knowing until a couple of years before starting my degree.
So why is that . . . and what exactly is civil engineering?

We could try to blame our ignorance on the relative modernity of the term – relative meaning it was first used more than two hundred years ago, rather than a thousand. In fact, the first person to call themselves a civil engineer was a Mr John Smeaton born in 1724, who used the term ‘civil’ to distinguish his work from that of military engineers. His projects were things like bridges and canals which were primarily for the use of the people.[1] However, seeing as most of us were born a good while after this, I don’t think the newness of the term is a very good excuse.

We could – as we do with most things – find a way to blame the government. You’ve probably heard that there’s a shortage of engineering graduates, which isn’t ideal for a country wanting to grow its economy and raise living standards. The government and various STEM related organisations have been putting great effort into telling children about STEM, but surely it would be helpful to break it up a bit? After all, an engineer isn’t a scientist any more than an IT technician is a mathematician. While we’re at it, let’s throw in that there are different types of engineers. This is probably a decent excuse for not knowing what civil engineering is.

Honestly though, I think the biggest reason the average person doesn’t know about civil engineering is because most of us don’t ever feel like we need to know. A little morbidity here – we’ve all heard that you’re more likely to die in a car accident than on an aeroplane, but did you know that you’re also 35000 times more likely to die in a car accident than from a structural failure?[2]

But what is a structural failure? I’m glad you asked, because I’m just about ready to answer the question ‘What is civil engineering?’ and structures are a big part of it.

Now, if you wanted a textbook definition you wouldn’t be reading an entire blogpost – so I’m not even going to quote one. If I, as someone who decided to dedicate my student loan towards the study of civil engineering, was going to define it, it would go like this:

‘Civil engineering is the physical foundation of civilised communal living on any scale. It is the design, building and maintenance of infrastructure, as well as the natural environment.

Infrastructure is all about structures. It’s building homes, bringing everything we need for survival to those homes and taking the waste we don’t want away again; it’s the provision of roads to get us from one place to another, of railways to get us there faster and of tunnels to get us through a place rather than around; it’s what allows us mitigate the risks of living in dangerous locations such as floodplains and earthquake fault lines.

Civil engineering is therefore the structural framework for human beings to live together as we do.’

It’s strange to think about, isn’t it? That civil engineering is present in almost everything we do, and yet so many of us can’t define it. Personally, I’m glad I learned about it before I chose my degree. What a way to change the world – building it!

So my answer to why people don’t know what civil engineering is: Because you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

[1] ‘Civil Engineering: A Very Short Introduction’, David Muir Wood, 2012

[2], ‘Structural Failures’, accessed 22/10/16


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