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My Parents Still Don't Understand What I Do

The title of this entry was used as a square on networking bingo card for a structural engineering group that I’m a part of, as a facetious nod to how few people understand what structural engineers actually do despite our work being visible in every aspect of daily life. While I’m guessing some people will find this entry through my various internet presences, for those who stumble upon it otherwise, here’s a crash course in what structural engineers do.

Every bridge and most buildings you see were designed by structural engineers. “Design” in this context broadly means figuring out the layout of beams, columns, braces (structural members), providing sizes for these members, and figuring out a way to get all the weight of the structure to the ground (determining a “load path”). Structural engineering is a specific subset of civil engineering, which is a very broad field covering disciplines such as traffic, environment, and water resources, which have very little in common with structural engineering other than the fact that we contribute to the built environment.

In truth, structural engineering has more overlap with mechanical engineering, and a lot of coursework is shared: statics, dynamics (particularly as it relates to earthquakes or “shakey shakes”, as my friend likes to say), finite element analysis, among others. Some universities like the USMA and UCSD have even chosen to either align structural engineering with mechanical engineering, or have split it off into its own department.

So given that what we do is so important to the daily life of most people, why don’t more people know what we do?

When structure is acknowledged, most people assume that the role we fill is the job of the architect. I’m guilty of this myself; I briefly studied architecture before college, because my perception of the field was that architecture was all math and physics. I hadn’t even heard of structural engineers, as “starchitects” are the ones that dominate popular culture and the news. Aside from the issue of visibility in popular culture, I’ve found that engineers are pretty terrible at communicating what they do and why it matters. It’s an age old joke that we pass around that architects get all the glory for the work we do, but we don’t do ourselves many favors either.

I recently visited one of the few museum exhibits I’ve seen that included structural engineering at the Skyscraper Exhibit at Liberty Science Center. While there were several prominent structural engineers and academics on both the advisory committee and the steering group, some of the placards were factually wrong. There were a few that were directly adjacent to the most “engineering dominant” part of the exhibition called the “Tall Building Test Lab” (complete with mini seismic shake table). The biggest offender was on “Computer vs. Nature” placard:


FTFY: “~~Architects~~ Structural engineers use powerful computers to simulate any physical force that might affect a tall building. ~~Computer-aided design (CAD)~~ Finite Element Analysis software lets them see how a building will react before the first shovel full of dirt is dug.”

While it’s fun to poke fun at things like this, but it’s emblematic of a larger problem with the industry, but more on that later.

Published Oct 1, 2019

Striving to stay curious.