Walter Konon talks about Civil and Environmental Engineering at NJIT

NJIT faculty member Walter Konon

Walter Konon, chairman of the civil and environmental engineering department at NJIT, is a professional engineer and licensed building inspector. He is a professor who for 28 years has taught civil and environmental engineering.

Before coming to NJIT, Professor Konon was a structural engineer for Grumman Aircraft, where he tested airplanes as well as a lunar capsule that landed on the moon. He has also worked for several construction companies. In the below interview, Professor Konon answers questions about the civil engineering major.

Q: Civil engineering is not taught in high school, so I suspect many young students don’t know much about it. Can you begin by telling us how your department educates its students?

A:  Our civil engineering program is a general one that covers all the areas of civil engineering. They take classes in transportation – how to design and build roads and highways, tunnels and airports. They learn about environmental engineering, cleaning up our waterways, our drinking water supplies. They learn how to clean up polluted areas such as old industrial sites. And they also study construction engineering, where civil engineers oversee the design and construction of buildings and bridges and marine terminals.  Then, in their junior or senior year they specialize in the area they are most interested in.

Q: What kind of high school students should consider civil engineering as a major in college?

A:  Civil engineers are builders of large projects. If you are a high school student who likes to build or construct things, who likes hands-on projects, and if you like math and science, you might consider studying civil engineering in college. Remember that civil engineers also spend a good deal of time, perhaps half their time, outside in the field. So if you like the idea of spending half your time in the field, and half in the office, and you enjoy working with people, you might like civil engineering.

Q: You mentioned hands-on projects; do your students get to work on hands-on projects in their classes?

A: They work on many of them. Each year, for instance, our students compete in steel bridge competition in which they must design and build a 25-foot long bridge. Usually about a dozen students work on the bridge, and NJIT often wins the regional competition and places in the national competition.  Our students also competed in a national contest in which they designed the model building that could withstand earthquake conditions. They flew to LA to compete in the competition and they won two awards.

Q: What kinds of work do civil engineers do after they graduate? What are the main industries in which they work?

A: Some work for construction firms that are building skyscrapers or tunnels. Others work for the Department of Transportation, where they supervise the work of consultants who build roads, bridges, airports and marine facilities. Some work for towns and cities as engineers that supervise the town’s building projects. Others start their own engineering firms and either build or consult. There are a lot of choices for civil engineers, who are now in great demand. Recruiters from NYC and NJ and Pennsylvania come to NJIT twice a year, during career fairs, to recruit our students, and civil engineering majors are usually the most heavily recruited students.

Q: Why is there a good job demand for civil engineers?

A: Well, think about where we are located. The NYC metropolitan region is one of the biggest, oldest and congested regions in the country. And many of our roads, bridges, airports, tunnels, waterways and buildings are old and decaying and in need of repair or replacement. There are also exciting new projects in the works, such as Second Avenue subway in Manhattan and a new tunnel under the Hudson River that will link New Jersey and New York. Who will work on those projects? Civil engineers will.

Q: Earlier this year I interviewed a civil engineering student, Steven Flormann, who belonged to two student teams that won awards: the steel bridge team and the earthquake team. And here is what Steven told me about civil engineering:

“To my mind,” he said, “civil engineering is a wonderfully important job. As a civil engineer I’ll have the chance to work on the largest projects in the world -- from bridges and tunnels to skyscrapers and the layouts of towns and cities.  The civil in civil engineering comes from the word: CIVIL-ization. Unlike other engineering fields and technology based careers, civil engineering projects affect society directly. The different fields within civil engineering, moreover, practically allow students to choose their paths and even change their specialties - so the career possibilities are endless.” 

A: I think Steve is right. During the course of my career, as you mentioned in your introduction, I worked on airplanes and on a lunar module that landed on the moon. When I was in college, I never would have dreamed I could do that. I also worked as a supervising engineer on a subway project in Queens and on a tunnel project across the East River in New York City.  

Q: And what about Steve’s idea that civil engineers help improve our society? And that they have a lot of career choices?

A: He’s right again. Our alumni often tell us about how gratifying their jobs are because they are improving the infrastructure of the country. They get a four-year degree and begin working right away. Then they get a professional license. They don’t have to spend years in graduate schools. They learn on their jobs and, as Steve said, they can switch to different fields within civil engineering. They are well paid and they like their work. There is great satisfaction in building something that benefits society. So again, civil engineering is a major for high school students who like to build things. If as a child you liked playing with Legos or building models; and if as a teenager you like science and math and would one day like to build large projects that are important to our society, you should consider majoring in civil engineering.

(by Robert Florida, University Web Services)