The Benefits of Studying Civil Engineering: An Interview with Taha Marhaba

Professor Taha Marhaba on the Benefits of Studying Civil Engineering

Without civil engineers, a society could not function: For they are the ones who build our roads, bridges and airports, and ensure that the houses we live in are structurally sound.  Civil engineers also design the drains and the water treatment plants that bring running water into our homes.

The work that civil engineers do is not only essential, but also interesting, various and fun. Civil engineers use math and science for their calculations, but also use design and artistic principles to build their structures.  

And perhaps that’s why civil engineering is such a popular major at NJIT.  It’s a hands-on major in which students work on a variety of design and building projects. Civil engineering majors at NJIT learn to design and build the structures and infrastructures that allow an advanced society to function smoothly.  And because of the important work they do, civil engineering graduates are always in great demand. They are also well paid for the work they do.

In this interview, Taha Marhaba, chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, talks about civil engineering, as both a major and as a career.  Marhaba is an esteemed civil engineering professor who focuses his research on water quality. He’s developed a technique that is used to test water quality, and he’s also an expert in droughts. He directs the university’s New Jersey Applied Water Research Center, whose mission is to research the state’s drinking water supply.

He’s a gifted teacher. In 2008, he received NJIT´s Excellence in Teaching Award. More recently, Rutgers University, from which he has three degrees, gave him the 2010 Distinguished Engineer Award.

What is civil engineering?
Civil engineering is the fusion of engineering (the soundness of infrastructures), design (CAD sketches) and art (designing aesthetic structures). Civil engineers call upon science and engineering principles to plan, design and build infrastructures.  These infrastructures include buildings, roads and highways; tunnels, bridges and rail systems, airports, seaports, water reservoirs and storm water drainage and control plants.  Civil engineers also maintain these infrastructures.  Civil engineers are vital to the functioning of advanced societies.

You have said civil engineers build the things that people use in their daily lives. Can you explain that?
Most of us live in houses, yet don’t realize that when a house is built, a civil engineer is involved. The drawings and plans for a house must be reviewed by a professional engineer -- usually a civil engineer. Civil engineers also plan, design, build and maintain our roads. They also design the bridges and tunnels we use to get to work, as well as the water treatment plants and the storm-water drains that bring running water -- the most essential element of life -- into our homes. 

So whenever we drink or wash our hands, we should be grateful to civil engineers?
Absolutely. Most people don’t dwell on this, but whenever you turn the tap on in your sink the water comes from a local water treatment plant. And who designed that plant? Civil engineers did. And who designed and built the distribution system that carries the water through the pipes and into you home? Civil engineers. 

Many civil engineers work in transportation and in environmental engineering.  What is that work like?
They design and build and maintain roads and highways, bridges, as well as the drainage systems underneath them, such as culverts.  They also design and build airport runways. Civil engineers also study traffic patterns and suggest optimal ways to control traffic. And many civil engineers these days work in environmental engineering. They develop sustainable systems, something that lasts and is environmentally sound. When a company designs a road or a housing development, a civil engineer will tell the company how to design and build in an environmentally benign way.   

What kind of high school student should consider majoring in civil engineering? 
Any student who has an interest in the sciences, such as mathematics and physics, yet also has a passion to improve our society would make a good civil engineering major.  At NJIT, we teach our civil engineering majors to use engineering techniques to build a resilient and sustainable infrastructure.  And improving America’s infrastructure improves life for our generation and for generations to come.  It’s important work that we do and it’s enjoyable.  Civil engineers are also in great demand and are well paid.  So if you want a secure engineering field that offers variety and enjoyment and good compensation, you should major in civil engineering.

You said civil engineering is a uniquely interesting major because it has variety. Can you explain that?
Civil engineering is such a flexible major that you’ll never be bored.  You won’t do the same calculations and the same number crunching over and over.  You’ll go through the phases of your class project quickly. These phases include planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance. Unlike other engineers, civil engineers work on various stages of a project: they plan, design, and build a structure, and also operate and maintain it.  Take a bridge, for example. Civil engineers design and build it, but they also maintain the bridge.  In that sense, civil engineering is uniquely versatile.

Is civil engineering a hands-major, where students work on a lot of projects?
Very much so.  Starting as freshman, civil engineering majors use CAD to create fundamental designs of civil structures. They design structures such as   a condo unit, a single-family house or a bridge truss. Then, in their sophomore year, our civil engineering majors begin doing projects in our laboratories.  The Civil Engineering Department has many labs where students work happily on hands-on projects.

Can you describe those labs?
We have a surveying lab where students learn how to survey; a soil mechanics lab where they test and evaluate soil. We also have a hydraulics lab, where they learn how water flows. And in our constructions materials lab, students work with the materials used in civil engineering such as concrete and steel. And for those interested in the environment, our environmental labs are where students test water to see if it’s suitable for drinking.  Students are always working on projects in the labs, which makes their work interesting and ever-developing. 

Do students join civil engineering clubs, too?
Yes, and we have some great clubs. Our Steel Bridge Team, sponsored by our student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, is a club that commonly wins the regional steel bridge building contest. Students love working on that team, and the experience they get is invaluable.  Many of the students who belonged to the team have gotten great jobs after graduation in large part because of the leadership roles they assumed on the Steel Bridge Team. Many civil engineers also join Engineers Without Borders, another award-winning group that does humanitarian work, especially in water purification and sanitation, in Haiti.

What kind of jobs do civil engineering majors usually get after they graduate?
Civil engineering graduates can choose from a variety of great careers. They can work as structural engineers or environmental engineer. Or they can work as geotechnical or transportation engineers. Others work as water resource engineers or as construction managers.  A civil engineer graduate can also work for consulting engineering firms or for government agencies. Others open their own business or work in research and development. Again, civil engineering is a diverse field that offers students many options.  In essence, it’s a unique major that offers variety, enjoyment and great career choices. And civil engineers are always in demand, since without them our society could not function.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)