[On Friday, March 29 I was invited to speak at the ASCE India Region Student Conference organized by Mukesh Patel School of Technology Management & Engineering. I introduced in my presentation the idea of “Civil Engineering Plus”. This post summarizes my presentation. Write to me if you want a copy]
I am a civil engineer by training. My father M V Modak was a civil engineer. He built several water and sewage treatment plants across the country. My uncle N V Modak was an outstanding civil engineer. He built the Vaitarana dam (now known as Modak sagar) for Mumbai, founded Central Public Health and Environmental Research Institute CPHERI (now known as National Environmental Engineering Research Institute NEERI) and developed a Master Plan for Mumbai in 1960s. I am proud to be a civil engineer and part of the Modak Engineer Family! My son Pranav is a chemical engineer specializing in energy and environmental engineering.
American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) aptly describes civil engineering -see quote below
“Civil engineers are changing the world. They dream up creative, practical solutions that benefit the everyday lives of people and the communities in which we live. They work with smart and inspiring people to invent, design and build things that matter.”
Civil engineering is a diverse field. It consists of branches such as Structural, Geotechnical, Water Resources, Transportation, Construction, Urban Planning and Environmental. In the undergraduate studies, one must not forget to take advantage of this diversity. Even while specializing in any of the branches, we should not remain in a silo and understand the interconnections. Only then you are a complete civil engineer.
The world today is facing numerous challenges . We are concerned about growing water stress, rising air pollution in our cities, contaminated lands, threat to biodiversity, food security and global warming just to name a few.
Recognizing the scale and complexity of the problem, nations came together and set forth 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Civil engineers have a lot to contribute towards the SDGs. Every civil engineer should be exposed to the targets set under each SDG. But then have we restructured our curricula to reflect what we need to learn?
We need to transform to survive. We have to mainstream sustainability in our education, practice and policies to achieve the targets under SDGs and more so in civil engineering.
Take the transportation sector for instance. Can we think of roads not just to transport but to generate electricity? Prototypes were constructed in the Netherlands for a cycle lane and for vehicles in France with some success. After these initial pilots, solar roads are making a headway where solar panels are embedded on the road surface to generate electricity. Solar Roadways® (SR)in the US has developed a modular system of specially engineered solar panels that can be walked and driven upon. SR panels are made of specifically formulated tempered glass, which can support the weight of semi-trucks. Questions are however raised on the overall economics (investment and returns) as well the robustness of the glass. But I am sure we will tide over.
Solar Road Source
China has come up with intelligent highways that could speed the transformation of the global transportation industry. A 1,080-meter-long stretch of road in the eastern city of Jinan has been built where the technologies are embedded underneath transparent concrete. This intelligent highway can withstand 10 times more pressure than the normal asphalt variety and solves the problem with glass. About 45,000 vehicles will use the section every day, and the solar panels inside will generate enough electricity to power highway lights and 800 homes. It is now proposed to charge electric vehicles that will ply on the road. What a smart move!
Just like the solar roads, “plastic roads” have now come up and getting popular. India alone has laid more than 15000 kms of roads gobbling plastic waste. KWS, a VolkerWessels company, Wavin and Total are working on the development of plastic roads, also known as the PlasticRoad. Every component of the PlasticRoad is designed to make its application completely circular, with the goal of using recycled plastic as much as possible. The PlasticRoad consists of a prefabricated, modular and hollow road structure that makes road construction faster with practically zero maintenance compared to traditional road structures. Our transportation engineers need to learn about such innovations.
Plastic Road Source
Contaminated lands are increasing across the world due to unabated pollution. A geotechnical engineer needs to understand Contaminated Soil Engineering and learn how to remediate contaminated lands – a subject not generally taught in conventional geotechnical engineering. Soil erosion prevention and control has also assumed importance, especially in catchment area treatment of degraded watersheds, employing techniques of bioengineering. Do we cover such topics in our curricula?
Lately, engineers and planners have started recognizing the importance of understanding of urban metabolism. Cities over period of time “decay” and retrofit, reconstruction and redevelopment of infrastructure becomes necessary raising a challenge to manage the (contaminated) debris and objectionable materials (e.g. cables, asbestos). Use of chemicals in construction has therefore come under the lens. A civil engineering student needs to know more about objectionable and banned construction chemicals.
Building “green” is a strategy thinking “upstream” considering the life cycle of infrastructure. In the green buildings, the form, design, choice of materials and fixtures become important where principles of 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) are applied. Several Green Building rating schemes have come up (e.g. LEED and GRIHA in India) that present a guiding framework. There are incentives to go green, but the cost differential between “conventional” and “green” buildings is fast decreasing. So, by default we should always build green! Materials like bamboo are now revisited with composite construction (using waste plastic) with products made out of recycling of construction waste such as bricks, paver blocks etc. are getting a preference. Waste is no more a waste. How do we conceive and “design” such buildings?
Green Walls Source
In countries such as US, Canada, UK and Sweden, retrofitting and reconstruction guidelines have been developed keeping focus on demand side energy management, energy storage and energy efficiency. So, you not only build green but live green by transforming existing structures. Concepts such as Green Roofs, Urban Forestry and Agriculture and Green Walls are getting implemented with proven benefits, The building management systems now address indoor environmental quality with automation deployed to ensure comfort, health and safety of the residents. Our civil engineering students must know.
Bamboo house Source
In the arena of water, water use reduction is getting priority by implementing low flow plumbing fixtures. Water retention through rainwater harvesting and wastewater recycling are becoming de facto practices in large housing complexes. Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) matured in Australia and in the US retains stormwater to percolate to the ground or and get diverted to the storage areas for later use. Wastewater on a city scale is treated for secondary use and supplied via “purple “lines. Many of these interventions are struck based on public private partnerships.
WSUD for a highway Source
Purple pipes carrying treated wastewater for reuse Source
I spoke to my Professor Friend about a need to develop a course at undergrad level for civil engineers. I thought that it is important that students get a systematic exposure to these new transformations. I called the course as “Civil Engineering Plus”
As usual, Professor listened to me patiently. He lighted his cigar and said
“Dr Modak, all good but don’t forget to introduce the subject of climate change”
Professor had a point. We all know that climate change is real. Civil engineers need to build infrastructure that can cope with the changing climate. Important structures falling in the climate vulnerable zones will need to be “climate proofed”, just the way we do earthquake resistant designs.
“I wish Deans of the Civil Engineering departments realize the relevance of introducing the course “Civil Engineering Plus”. It will not only make the engineering contextual, but the civil engineers will think out of the box, learn to be interdisciplinary, environmentally responsible and socially sensitive” I said
“Well Dr Modak”, Professor extinguished his cigar. “Your plus idea is not just for civil engineers but also to other fields of engineering as well. Think of developing an institute elective”
Then he paused. He said slowly and in a serious tone
“But what is important is dedication, integrity, self-esteem and a compassion – qualities that are so hard to teach and are missing with most engineers! These four qualities are essential if you want to be a true civil engineer with a Plus. Only then can we dream to make this planet future ready”
I couldn’t disagree.
[My not for profit organization Ekonnect Knowledge Foundation will be most happy to partner with interested universities and civil engineering departments to develop the course or a finishing school on Civil Engineering Plus. Do contact me if interested]
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