August 21, 2023

Prestigious civil engineering programs continue global mission in building, advancing legacy of excellence, storied tradition

From responding as experts to major earthquakes and wildfires to designing modern marvels such as the Golden Gate Bridge, studying space habitats for NASA and innovating “smart concrete” to communicate when roads need repairs, Purdue University’s undergraduate and graduate civil engineering programs consistently rank among the nation’s best, built on more than 130 years of outstanding teaching and research.

And 2023 was no exception.

Purdue’s Christopher B. and Susan S. Burke Graduate Program in Civil Engineering and the Lyles School of Civil Engineering for undergraduates each ranked No. 7 overall in the 2023 U.S. News & World Report surveys. Both have extended their run as top 10 programs for over a decade. Rankings in the U.S News & World Report surveys are computed from the responses to a survey sent to deans, heads and selected senior faculty.

“The efforts and accomplishments achieved by our incredible undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends are what make the Lyles School of Civil Engineering and the Christopher B. and Susan S. Burke Graduate Program in Civil Engineering such strong programs,” says Rao S. Govindaraju, Bowen Engineering Head of Civil Engineering and Christopher B. and Susan S. Burke Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering. “I am proud of what they have done and look forward to what the future has in store for our school.”

A who’s who of the world’s leading and most historic civil engineers reveals direct ties to the storied civil engineering program, which was established in 1887 and is one of the oldest colleges at Purdue. For example:

  • Purdue’s first Black graduate was David Robert Lewis, an 1894 civil engineering graduate whose senior thesis, “Highway Road Construction,” was ahead of its time.
  • Longtime civil engineering professor Charles Alton Ellis was chiefly responsible for the structural design of the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Solomon Cady Hollister, a former Purdue civil engineering professor who went on to become dean of the College of Engineering at Cornell University, in the 1930s designed the conduits that carry water into the turbines of Hoover Dam.
  • Elwood Mead, an 1884 Purdue agriculture alum, was commissioner of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation in the 1920s and became the chief engineer for Hoover Dam’s construction. The dam’s Lake Mead, the world’s largest manmade reservoir, bears his name.
  • CE alum Stephen D. Bechtel Jr., patriarch of the Bechtel family and third-generation CEO of Bechtel Corp., was a global figure in business, public affairs and philanthropy, overseeing the company’s growth into a world leader on six continents.
  • Prominent civil engineering professors Gerald Leonards, a Purdue alum, and Milton Harr led extensive research on earthwork and foundation projects in the 1990s, particularly the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Harr was a University of Rome research committee member studying the medieval structure, and Leonards was the only non-European to sit on an official government commission in Italy to investigate how to stabilize the iconic tower.

That global impact remains a cornerstone of the program today, with Purdue’s expertise regularly playing out in connection with major events.

Within days of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria in February, civil engineering professor Ayhan Irfanoglu traveled to the disaster zone with a team of structural engineers to assess the damage.

Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering, has responded to wildfires and toxic spills with his students the past four years to determine their impact on water systems. Whelton is headed to Hawaii to help assess any evidence of water contamination in the public utilities from the deadly wildfire that ravaged the Maui community of Lahaina.

“The faster we can decontaminate water systems, the faster communities can recover economically,” Whelton says.

Additional Information

Boilermaker students in CE work as research fellows in a range of state-of-the-art laboratories, perform internships with significant national and international companies and travel to observe projects abroad. Additionally, students engage in hands-on experiential opportunities like Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS), co-op programs, and a multitude of student-run clubs with challenging competitions and activities.

New technology and industry demand for design, team experiences and interdisciplinary research evolves education and discovery in the Lyles School undergraduate program, which leads in educational discovery through multiple academic specialty groups.

Lyles School undergraduates and those in the Christopher B. and Susan S. Burke Graduate Program in Civil Engineering enjoy a variety of career options. A 95% job placement rate helps ensure students get the chance to use their skills developed at Purdue to make a difference in the world.

pt-dowgala-800x533 Jeffrey Dowgala (Photo provided) Download image

Purdue’s global reputation as a leader in earthquake engineering was a major draw to Jeffrey Dowgala when he was deciding where to pursue his PhD. While completing undergrad and graduate studies at Drexel University, he collaborated with Irfanoglu and learned about Purdue’s extensive civil engineering program, opportunities and research facilities.

“While Purdue’s civil engineering program has strong academic fundamentals, my professors went beyond teaching out of a book and taught us to critically think about and understand the tools available and the engineering problems we were trying to solve,” says Dowgala, a CE alum who is now a senior associate at global engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates in Emeryville, California.

“Only then could we understand what combinations of methods or techniques are appropriate — or not appropriate — to solve the problem.”

Writer: Phillip Fiorini,

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