Carnegie Mellon University
May 31, 2016

Real-World Engineering: Behavior of Structural Systems

Real-World Engineering: Behavior of Structural Systems A new course offered by the CEE department is teaching students how components of structural systems work together and the rationale behind a structure’s design.

The course, Behavior of Structural Systems (12-638), is meant to bridge the gap between theory and real-world practice “to prepare student engineers for the work environment,” said Assistant Teaching Professor Sarah Christian (BS ’03), the course’s instructor.

Through lectures combined with open-ended problems and projects, Christian’s undergraduate and graduate students are learning how a structure’s many parts act together, the reasons why structures are designed in specific ways, and how to model them to resist complicated loads, such as those created by harsh conditions including wind and earthquakes.

Since graduating from CMU herself, Christian has practiced as a structural and building envelope engineer in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. She has also earned a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and a PhD from Stanford University.

Christian developed the course in part to help students “answer the questions that I had as a new engineer” before they enter the workforce.

Topics students explore include fundamentals of structural design theory, common structural systems, distribution of gravity and lateral loads and how structural components such as moment frames, braced frames, and shear walls act within a structure.

While buildings today are usually analyzed with computer simulations, Christian also teaches her students how to solve structural problems by hand using approximate methods of analysis. By teaching students how to perform an analysis of a building without computer assistance, she is equipping them with the intuition that will allow them to determine if their computer-generated “results make sense or not,” Christian said.

Throughout the course, she uses lectures to give her students the tools they need to work through the example problems and projects she assigns.

“Students have questions you can’t answer in the course of a normal lecture —questions that don’t come up unless you’re practicing,” Christian said. By guiding her students, she enables them to make assumptions and inferences that they will later use as practicing structural engineers.

“I learned how to design … with the whole building in mind, not just one specific component of the building,” said Dolly Hsu, a recently graduated master’s student who took the course in preparation for a career in structural engineering.

Christian also taught her “how important communication is when designing a single building with multiple people and how many small details go into designing a building,” Hsu added.

By striving to provide her students with intuition in the field, Christian aims to instill within them a confidence that will later set them apart from their peers in the early stages of their careers and propel them to be future leaders.