Carnegie Mellon University

Collage of students engaged in class activities

June 13, 2023

Undergraduate Program: Building CEE Skills Across the Curriculum

At CEE, we empower our students with the skills to make a real difference in their careers and communities. Our innovative Civil and Environmental Engineering programs introduce students to a range of key concepts and themes from day one, through our undergraduate program threading approach. These program threads cover a wide range of critical topics, including engineering economics, technology and sensing, sustainability, and more, which are revisited throughout the student's academic journey, resulting in a well-rounded and comprehensive understanding of the field.

As students progress through their studies, our program threads approach allows for a deepening of their knowledge, expertise, and practical skills, ensuring that they are equipped to tackle real-world challenges with confidence and competence. By introducing topics such as social responsibility and ethics, we also instill in our students a sense of purpose, inspiring them to make a positive impact in their communities and beyond.

"The world is constantly evolving, and as such, we are committed to regularly innovating and updating our curriculum,” explains CEE Department Head, Burcu Akinci. "By weaving new threads throughout our curriculum, we are able to introduce fresh perspectives and incorporate new ideas, ultimately leading to continuous improvements in our educational offerings." 

Our vision includes empowering a diverse community of socially-conscious problem solvers, and our goal is to produce graduates who excel not only technically but also in addressing the needs of society and advancing their chosen profession.

To ensure that the threads are effectively infused throughout the program, the faculty have teamed up to define learning objectives for each thread and to map which courses teach which objectives. Doing so has helped faculty members to better anticipate what students will know coming into their courses and how that knowledge will grow over time. 

“If we have a global understanding of what we want students to learn and what’s going to happen in other courses, we can say, ‘You'll do this in a course next semester.’ Or, ‘Remember? You did this last year,’ explains Sarah Christian, CEE faculty member and Undergraduate Program Committee co-chair. “We can help them to better contextualize their learning by drawing those connections.”

Likewise, the threads have served to inform course updates and new course design as well as enable faculty alignment around achieving key program objectives. 

“The threads allow us to articulate what we want our students to be able to do by the end of their time with us,” says Joe Moore, who co-chairs the Undergraduate Program Committee with Christian. “In conjunction, the threads give us a means by which to ensure that we are systematically building the students’ skill sets and understanding and getting them to those ultimate goals.”

Integrating the Threads across the Curriculum

Introducing Key Concepts and Skills in Year One

The introductory 12-100 CEE course is where students first encounter many of the undergraduate threads, paving the way for further study and growth. In this first-year class, students touch on areas like system thinking, risk and uncertainty, sustainability and engineering economics. They gain initial familiarity with the design and construction process, including the use of math skills, computational tools, and sensing technology as part of engineering design. 


Less technical ideas also arise. As part of the communications thread, students receive an overview of professional and technical writing genres used in CEE and begin refining their presentation skills. Students learn about project management and engineering codes of ethics. They also begin to examine the complex ways that engineering decisions impact others, looking at contemporary and historical issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“Of course we want our students to be very strong in their technical skills. At the same time, they need to be cognizant of the ethical considerations of our engineering actions. They need to be able to communicate in a way that's going to compel others to see their perspective,” says Moore. “The threads are reflective of the holistic approach we take to undergraduate education.” 

Technology and Sensing in the Forefront

Sensing technology is an increasingly important part of the civil and environmental engineering field. These novel technologies can empower engineers to make more proactive, informed decisions and build smarter, more connected infrastructure systems and communities. 

It’s also an area where Carnegie Mellon’s CEE faculty have long been on the cutting-edge in research and application, making sensing a natural fit for an area of focus for CEE’s undergraduate program. 

Students explore this thread in many of their second and third year courses, including two dedicated labs: a Sensing and Data Acquisition lab followed by Experimental & Sensing Systems Design and Computation for Infrastructure Systems lab. The sophomore and junior design classes are also key parts of the Technology and Sensing thread. 

In the sophomore design class, students explore the use of sensing for structural health monitoring. “By introducing students to sensing, computing, and data acquisition in the context of a very relatable application area, students are able to connect their growing mechanics and physics-based domain knowledge with more advanced computing and sensing concepts,” says Katherine Flanigan, who teaches the course. 

untitled-2.pngWith her experience in structural monitoring research, Flanigan also connects the course content to real-world case studies she’s worked on to highlight sensing’s widespread applicability in civil and environmental engineering applications.

In the junior projects course, led by Moore, students examine the use of sensing for resource allocation and infrastructure management at Carnegie Mellon. For example, students recently monitored traffic to the University’s health center to consider whether the facility should extend its hours. 

“The goal is to use the data captured by these sensing technologies to improve community services and the management of infrastructure and environmental systems, while also being sensitive to ethical considerations like privacy,” explains Moore. “In these project courses, we’re tying in a lot of this content from the different threads. Since they happen every year, they're natural points throughout the program to add to the students’ skills and to bring them all together.” 

Prioritizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Another thread essential to CEE’s undergraduate education is diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—which aligns closely to the department’s vision of empowering a diverse community of socially conscious problem solvers to lead the world to a sustainable, resilient, equitable, and inclusive future. As such, CEE is committed to developing engineers who understand and demonstrate the importance of DEI through their decisions and actions. 

With the DEI thread across the curriculum, class discussions and assignments push students to analyze and evaluate complex ideas and dilemmas at the intersection of engineering, environmental, and social justice. 

When studying computation and data science, students see how bias can be embedded in sensor technologies, data processing, and interpretation of results. When learning about environmental engineering, they cover the topic of environmental justice with case studies related to water, air, and land quality. In their junior projects course, students weigh the engineering economics and ethics of infrastructure investments in wealthy communities versus underserved areas. As a follow-up to that discussion, they consider how they could adapt a cost-benefit analysis to be more equitable.

The DEI thread also teaches students how to effectively engage and listen to the communities engineers serve. 

“From the research I’ve done, one of the best ways to end up with outcomes that do less harm is if you involve community members in the design process,” says Christian, who co-teaches the senior CEE Design course with David Rounce. Under their guidance, the senior design course has evolved to focus on projects that support underserved communities. To plan and design their projects, students must seek input and feedback from diverse stakeholders, helping them realize the value of partnering with people who bring first-hand knowledge of community challenges and opportunities.

CEE Department Head Burcu Akinci explains, "Engineers have a crucial role to play in creating a brighter future. We are equipping our students to fulfill this responsibility by collaborating with stakeholders and tackling problems with a community-centered mindset and a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our vision includes empowering a diverse community of socially-conscious problem solvers, and our goal is to produce graduates who excel not only technically but also in addressing the needs of society and advancing their chosen profession."