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The Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Pittsburgh is involved in a strategic planning process. It began with the faculty reaching consensus on a mission statement that included a commitment to the importance of lifelong learning.

This resulted in a requirement for me to give a lecture on the subject to our graduating seniors. Because I have enjoyed the longest life of anyone on the faculty I was easily the best choice for this assignment.

In this lifetime, the need for lifelong learning for civil engineers was dominated by changes in equipment and methods, materials of construction, and the body of knowledge available. I exemplified equipment and methods by showing my students the slide rule that I purchased for $15 in 1949 when I was a college freshman.

In the early 1970s hand-held electronic calculators became available, providing the same capability as slide rules, enhanced by “seven-place precision.” They were eventually supplemented by personal computers. Of course, today that capability is available on smartphones.

High-speed electronic computation and the power of today’s laptops revolutionized engineering analysis. Numerical methods based on successive approximations were made obsolete by our ability to overpower problems that previously were too big to solve.

Similarly, computer aided drafting revolutionized the preparation of engineering drawings. I took two courses in engineering drawing as an undergraduate and eventually became a competent draftsman. Today, the keyboard has replaced the drawing board.

The great advances in analytical procedures are matched with the dramatic change in construction materials. Numerous varieties of steel and concrete have provided us with basic materials with properties unheard of two generations ago. Newly developed materials — plastics, composites, engineered forest products, high performance asphalt concrete, etc. — have revolutionized civil engineering technology.

The explosion in knowledge is equally impressive. Research being done at universities adds to our storehouse of technology daily. Much of it is reflected in the collection of codes and standards upon which we base our designs.

Although the basic principles upon which civil engineering is based were recognized and well documented many years ago, their application to some areas of specialization has occurred in my lifetime. A good example is what we now call geotechnical engineering. When I studied this area, then called soil mechanics, the pioneers of today’s technology were in the process of formulating it.

Most people believe that technology is changing at an increasingly more rapid rate each year. A working civil engineer in the near future will have to spend a significant part of his or her time just keeping up with changes. Perhaps the best thing we academics can do is try to provide our students with flexibility and open minds so they can quickly adapt to changes. Fortunately our profession provides a number of avenues for working engineers to engage in lifelong learning — technical literature, short courses, workshops, technical conferences, etc.

Most of what I have mentioned appears to be motivated by necessity, the feeling that an engineer must continue to learn just to be able to function in our profession. I think it is equally important that engineers be motivated by the desire to learn new things, and if it helps their careers, that is a bonus.

So how does this apply to our personal lives? During my brief tenure with the Bridgeville Public Library Board of Trustees I was particularly impressed with the library’s efforts to live up its mission “to serve as a center for lifelong learning.”

Here, too, the mission is partly aimed at helping people cope with technological change, providing information that makes it easier for ordinary folks to function in today’s very intimidating environment. Another part is satisfying our inherent need to keep learning, to keep enhancing our knowledge base and our understanding of the world in which we live.

There is more to life than being entertained; entertainment is a spectator sport. Much more rewarding is the continued acquisition of new knowledge and comprehension.

Lifelong learning does not require signing up for “continuing education units.” It works well when we nurture our basic curiosity and investigate things that interest us. The public libraries, organizations like the Bridgeville Area Historical Society, and our religious institutions provide us with wonderful opportunities to do this.

John Oyler is a columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-343-1652 or [email protected].

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