Peck’s Wisdom on Developing Engineering Judgment

June 2006 » Columns
After reading the recently published Geo-Strata article, "Advice to a Young Engineer" by Ralph B. Peck, Ph.D., P.E., Hon. M.ASCE, I thought that the points that he directed toward young engineers in developing engineering judgment apply to all engineers in all disciplines. Let me explain why.
Cathy Baz&aacute

After reading the recently published Geo-Strata article, "Advice to a Young Engineer" by Ralph B. Peck, Ph.D., P.E., Hon. M.ASCE, I thought that the points that he directed toward young engineers in developing engineering judgment apply to all engineers in all disciplines. Let me explain why.

Make every assignment count. I confess that, sometimes, because of a deadline, budget, and/or habit, I conduct a design, analysis, or report as if there's nothing else to learn. I sometimes have thought that in those instances, I had not "learned" anything new. Yet, Peck argues that "in engineering, dealing with people is as important as dealing with physical laws." He further states that we can learn valuable performance skills by studying the people involved in even the most straightforward or "simple" assignments.

Teach your brain to register what your eyes see. Keep records! This is not an attempt to promote clutter, but rather to promote an organized manner of recalling details that sometimes can be overlooked because of inexperience, fatigue, short time to process, or all of the above. On some projects that "do not go as planned," the owners, contractors, and sometimes lawyers, want the engineers to recall what was said, seen, done, and by whom, when, and under what circumstances. After all, we're the "technical" folk. Not as dramatically, my records allow me to recall technical work that I have conducted, including site reconnaissance and data logging (photographs are great tools). The processing of the data I've recorded, such as failures in slopes, foundations, and structures, and other relevant information sometimes has taken me years to process fully.

Consciously evaluate the size of things. Some of my colleagues, in particular my superiors, can establish reasonable estimates for the volume of construction materials, magnitude of loads on buildings, quantity of areas covered, et cetera, by looking at the site or proposed work to be done. I'm still working on that, although I think that I would be suspicious of a 2,000-foot-high earth dam (Peck's example) or structural deflections exceeding a few inches in magnitude. The more I assign size to the quantities with which I work, the quicker I can establish whether these are feasible with available materials and technology. The same is true for estimates on budgets and time.

Read! I recently asked a fellow engineer to name some current top engineers and/or engineering projects. Alas, he did not fare well. He asked me how I knew. Simple: I read about these professionals and projects through magazines, journals, and the Internet. (I still wish I saw more on these topics in the media, but that's another story.)

Study precedents, the folklore of engineering. In "A Particle of Clay," Judith Niechcial discusses her father's passion for engineering history. The way I figure it, if one of the most eminent engineers of the 20th century found value and learning from the past, so too can engineers today. Our knowledge is cumulative, and many mistakes or incorrect assumptions can be minimized from studying what has been done and why it was done.

Sometimes I wish that I had Peck's wisdom and knowledge in my career discipline. Whether I accomplish such lofty goals, I think, will depend on how well I apply the good habits that Peck promotes.

Do you have some advice for engineers? Send your comments to civilconnection@cenews.com.


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