The role of humanities and social sciences in the civil engineering body of knowledge

Jeffrey Evans, Daniel Lynch, David Lange

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


The American Society of Civil Engineers has identified a Body of Knowledge (BOK) and is in the process of developing a second version. The first BOK identified the requirement for a broad education, and the second BOK will provide further structure to this aspect of civil engineering education. This paper explores the role of humanities and social sciences in the education of a 21st century engineer. Humanities and social sciences along with mathematics and natural science are at the core of liberal learning. The humanities include subjects such as art, history and literature while social science includes subjects such as economics, political science, sociology and psychology. Traditional engineering education emphasizes mathematics and sciences, but the role of humanities and social sciences is not well understood and appreciated by many students and faculty. Humanities and social sciences are a valuable part of a balanced educational experience because they contribute to understanding the context of problems and development of skills in critical thinking. Civil engineers need to consider the context of problems as they design solutions, and so the quality of solutions depend in part on the richness of the engineer's understanding of context. A civil engineer's thinking must be systematic and guided by analysis and assessment of relevant information. A critical thinker 1) raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely; 2) gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively, comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards; 3) thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and 4) communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems. For the civil engineering student educated predominantly in areas of math, science and engineering, the vital questions become math, science and engineering questions. The relevant information to be gathered becomes limited to math, science and engineering data, and the engineer may not think open-mindedly about the alternatives. The engineer might encounter difficulty communicating the questions and answers to a broader audience. Alternatively, an engineer whose education includes substantial grounding in humanities and social sciences is likely to recognize the impact of the engineering decisions not only upon the more narrowly framed math, science and engineering questions but upon the more broadly framed questions informed by social sciences and the humanities. In summary, a broad education is necessary for 21st century civil engineers to think critically about issues confronting them and develop solutions that are informed not only by math, science and engineering, but by humanities and social sciences as well; to implement those solutions effectively within real social contexts; and to evaluate them in humanistic as well as technical terms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - 2007
Event114th Annual ASEE Conference and Exposition, 2007 - Honolulu, HI, United States
Duration: Jun 24 2007Jun 27 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Engineering


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