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Department snapshot: Civil and Environmental Engineering

From bacteria to bridges, CEE researchers tackle natural and built environments.
Photo: M. Scott Brauer

Photos: M. Scott Brauer and Stuart Darsch

This is part of an occasional series of features profiling academic departments at MIT.

"This is a department with a very long history,” says Andrew Whittle, the head of MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE). That history, dating back to the Institute’s founding, is reflected in the department’s designation as Course 1 (of the many courses of study available to MIT students). But CEE is also a department that has changed significantly over time, as reflected in its renaming 20 years ago, when environmental engineering was added to its name.

That expansion is not so unusual: Many other civil engineering departments have added an environmental component in recent years. And in a way, the addition of the environment as a specific focus in the department was not such a great change from its traditional purview, Whittle says. Water supply and sewage systems, for example, always a strong component of civil engineering, necessarily involve a close understanding of the links between large manmade structures and their ecosystems. These have “always been a big issue in the civil engineering world,” says Whittle, the Edmund K. Turner Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who has been teaching at MIT for three decades.

But MIT’s approach to civil and environmental engineering, he says, is exceptionally well integrated between studies at the very largest and the very smallest scales: bridges and buildings at one end, and microbial ecosystems at the other. Unlike its peer departments elsewhere, Whittle says, CEE requires all its students to spend a year in an intensive course that tightly integrates the civil and environmental sides of the discipline.

“This is the only CEE department I know of in the country that has put together a coordinated sophomore program” combining the two areas, Whittle says. This is an important addition to the curriculum, he adds: Civil engineers need to understand the environment, and those working on environmental research and restoration need to understand the engineered structures that profoundly affect their surroundings.

“The core of our educational program is a really revolutionary model,” Whittle says. Since the integrated course was put together in 2005, “the response has been incredibly positive from the students … who are now totally committed to the concept.”

Building a capstone

After that sophomore experience, the integration of the two disciplinary areas culminates for CEE’s undergraduates in their senior year, when they form teams to tackle a capstone project. While the assignment changes from year to year, it always involves aspects of both civil and environmental engineering. “Many of our undergraduate students are strongly motivated by the excitement of a capstone project,” Whittle says.

For example, a recent capstone project involved the design of a hypothetical new building for the MIT campus. “They had to design a green building for this campus, with all the different factors that would go into it,” he says: not only the engineering of an innovative, energy-efficient and sustainable building, but also all aspects of its water supply, energy, sewage system and supply streams.

Another capstone project involved designing projects for southern Florida’s water management district — a project that involved weighing tradeoffs between the competing needs for sufficient clean water for major cities, including Miami, and the restoration of the Everglades, damaged by decades of land-use changes. “Those are very contradictory needs,” Whittle says, and gave the students a hands-on example of the balancing act involved in many large-scale projects.

The changes in the department, says associate professor Roman Stocker, reflect “a recognition that the problem space has changed. The needs are still there in the traditional areas,” such as the building of dams, roads and water systems, he says. But the required understanding of fundamental systems has become “much broader — how these things all integrate and interact with the environment.”

In Stocker’s own research, for example, “we are trying to understand the oceans from the smallest scales up. We try to understand complex systems from their basic building blocks.”

Because the department’s work spans such a wide range of domains, CEE recently distilled its various programs into six specific areas of focus: smarter cities, ecosystems, coastal zone, water and energy resources, chemicals in the environment, and materials.

Clearing the waters

Coastal zones, for example, are an area where the two arms of the department are deeply intertwined, Whittle says — addressing issues such as climate change, rising sea levels, urbanization of coastlines and pollution of coastal waters. “These are areas where civil and environmental aspects are expressed together, and areas where we have particularly relevant strengths,” he says.

Water and energy resources involve everything from understanding the environmental impacts of extracting fossil fuels and how to minimize those impacts to the development of infrastructure to harness power from wind, waves and geothermal resources. “These are areas where we have a lot of expertise,” Whittle says.

CEE’s expanding focus extends beyond its undergraduate program. “The volume of research in this department has been growing very rapidly in recent years,” he says, with the number of research papers published by CEE authors — including graduate students and postdocs as well as faculty members — nearly doubling over six years. The department’s researchers, for instance, have moved into work on the creation of new materials, as well as on understanding and improving traditional materials.

One example: MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub, an innovative program based in CEE that was launched in 2009. Drawing on partnerships with industry associations, and on faculty from three of MIT’s five schools, the program has made strides in deepening our understanding of the molecular structure of concrete, the most widely used synthetic material on Earth. It has also produced major reports analyzing the cradle-to-grave environmental impacts of concrete used in both buildings and roadways. Ongoing research aims to use these new insights to improve concrete’s strength and durability while minimizing its environmental impact.

In addition to their studies of traditional materials such as steel, glass and concrete, CEE researchers are also using insights drawn from nature to create entirely new materials. Research on the molecular structure of spider silk — one of nature’s strongest materials — may lead to the synthesis of new variations of this biologically derived fiber.

CEE’s environmental researchers also cover a broad swath of subject matter, looking at how life — from microbes to humans — affects the environment, and is affected by it. CEE scientists are also examining the water cycle in its entirety: how water resources are found, extracted and used, how wastewater is treated, and how waterborne contaminants spread through the environment.

“It’s a growing body of work,” Whittle says, that “covers a lot of territory, and all of those areas have seen growth” in recent years.

Tackling the world’s problems

This kind of research has been a great motivator for the student population, he says: “Our students are more energized and interested by real-world problems: They really want to go out and influence the way things get done. They really want to deal with the problems of our society.”

CEE offers many opportunities for that kind of engagement with the world’s problems and challenges, Whittle points out, including strong engagement in programs in Singapore (through the Singapore-MIT Alliance), Portugal (through the MIT Portugal Program), and the Middle East (through the Masdar Institute). Students are “very engaged in challenges that relate to the developing world,” Whittle says.

More locally, the department is closely connected, through its research, to many other MIT departments, Whittle says. “We have lots of connections to just about every other department in the School of Engineering,” he says, with particularly close relationships with the departments of chemical, biological and mechanical engineering. CEE researchers also work closely with colleagues in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and have ties with the School of Architecture and Planning and the MIT Sloan School of Management. “We’re very well integrated into the fabric of MIT, bringing together resources from different schools,” Whittle says.

Besides the traditional PhD program, CEE now offers two professional master’s degree programs: an intensive, nine-month Master of Engineering degree, and a two-year Master of Science in Transportation, which is an interdepartmental program run by CEE.

In some cases, students are the driving force behind hands-on projects. For example, MIT’s participation in an annual bridge-building competition, which pits teams of students from more than 200 institutions against each other, has been entirely student-led for the last five years. Last spring, the Institute’s team placed second overall, despite competition from teams with much greater faculty involvement. And students from CEE have won the annual MIT $100K entrepreneurship competition for the last two years.

While the department engages in many different areas of research, an underlying theme that ties together the disparate threads is summed up in CEE’s mission statement, Whittle says: “to provide human services in a sustainable way, balancing society’s need for long-term infrastructure with environmental health.”

Markus Buehler, an associate professor in CEE, stresses that connection: “If you build something, whether it’s a building or a new material, it’s going to affect the environment. Everything we do in civil engineering affects the environment, and the environment affects the humans. The work we do in this department is very valuable in showing the importance of this perspective, whether it’s at the scale of an ocean, or the scale of a building, or the scale of a molecule.”

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