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What I Wish I Knew About Studying Civil Engineering Before I Started

I have just finished the final year of my Civil Engineering degree and it has been completely different from what I had imagined, so I’ve put together a few things that I wish I had known when I started my degree:

1. Being good at maths and/or physics won’t get you far. In fact, I now know many people who got lower grades at A-Levels or didn’t do physics at all who consistently got great marks during the course because of their work ethic. You will need to work very hard to get a good mark. Also, now, anything above 70% is a great mark.

2. Your lecturers and lab-technicians want to help you as much as possible and will welcome curiosity, don’t be afraid to ask them questions or engage in class discussions. Doing so will help your own understanding of the topics. And make sure you pay attention to the first slide of the first lecture of every module – that’s the one with the lecturer’s contact information and office hours.

3. Don’t be afraid to be wrong, there is a strong emphasis in most modules on identifying errors and methods to improve in the future – critical reflection and self-awareness is always rewarded. In a lot of the coursework we did, particularly the reports, I did not get the “right” answer, but still got great marks. This encouraged me to develop skills such as self-awareness, reflection and professionalism. Additionally, I have come to realise that getting a “good” grade isn’t everything. It is important to have academic goals that you work towards, but it is far more important to improve your skills, your understanding, gain a variety of experiences, and take care of your mental health. Students are under a lot of pressure and I know too many who have become physically ill due to stress.

4. Group work isn’t that bad. A lot of the people you will be grouped with have the same interests and aspirations as you do, so you will make some friends from group work and be able to produce something that you’re proud of. As the years progress you will learn two incredibly important skills that you will need regardless of your career path: teamwork and conflict resolution. By third year, most of the modules will have some form of group work, so there will be plenty of opportunities to hone these skills.

5. Engineering is fun. It’s really, really fun. You and your peers will get to use your creativity and technical knowledge to design and build a number of things, you will get to do presentations, use cool software and go on trips. It will be difficult at times and there will be a lot of late nights, but remember to enjoy it!

Jasmine

Work/Life Balance as a Civil Engineering Student

Ever wondered how to balanced a degree like Civil Engineering with social activities, relaxation and part-time work? It can seem tricky, but recent graduate, Lizzie Templeton has got it covered. In today’s blog post she explains how she managed her time. 

 

I’ve recently graduated from my MEng Civil Engineering degree and as a student I remember deciding on what mattered to me when choosing a university to study my passion.  One thing I get asked about is the difficulty of managing the work life balance and how I found it.

When I first started at Newcastle University in Stage 1, I remember feeling daunted by the number of hours that appeared on my timetable.  After comparing timetables in Fresher’s week with my new flat mates, it soon became apparent that, as Engineering students, we were in the minority with our 20+ hour contact time weeks.  However, any worries soon disappeared once we got into the routine of our new adventure.  The time we were in Uni was very hands on and practical – we were in labs almost every week, keeping things interesting and different.  I remember being surprised how broad the range of modules were, incorporating many subjects such as maths, physics, chemistry, and biology.

The difference from Stage 2 compared with Stage 1 was very noticeable.  Many of the modules in Stage 1 were theory based, teaching us the basic engineering principles that are pivotal to design.  However, from second year there was more of a focus on design standards and applying the knowledge we had previously learnt.  This was particularly noticeable in a second semester module “Steel and Concrete Structures”.  I also noticed a big increase in independent learning, in our 20 credit Design of Sustainable Engineering Systems module (DSES).

The move to Stage 3 saw more design-based modules following on from previous years, with exams in Geotechnical Design and Design of Building Systems. Again, there was a push towards independence and creative, innovative learning in DSES 3, where we had to develop a basic, client Project Brief into our own detailed Brief.

With the intense workload that comes with a degree in Civil Engineering, it is very important to be able to “switch off” and relax, away from the stress of work.  One of my favourite ways to do this was to get out of the house and go for a drink with my housemates. I find it helps to get out, especially if I’d been been cooped up in the library all week.  I also liked socialising with friends off the course, allowing me to really relax and not think about any upcoming deadlines.

With regards to managing my work/life balance, I found it regimented in Stage 1.  The structured 9-5 timetable made it relatively easy to complete most of my work while in Uni, allowing me to often have the evenings off to relax.  However, as I progressed through to Stage 3, more discipline was required from my perspective.  The contact hours significantly decreased, to approximately only 12 hours a week.  Therefore, in efforts to reduce last minute work and stress, I still endeavoured to maintain structured hours in the library, even when I was not timetabled in Uni.  I find this helped me to work without distractions and, apart from during exam period, I often got home to a free evening for my own time.

Successfully following this structure, I had plenty of time to enjoy playing with the Women in Engineering Netball team on Saturdays.  This was a fun, relaxed way to keep up my hobby without the pressure of training and away games with the official Newcastle team.  Additionally, despite the busy timetables and workload, I managed to work part time as a student ambassador.  This suited my work balance extremely well due to the flexibility of the role – allowing me to choose when I’m free to work and for specified hours.

Global Engineering – Expedition to Tanzania

In this blog post Laurence, a Stage 4 Civil Engineering student, tells us all about his involvement in the Raleigh International expedition to Tanzania…

The Global Engineering module presented a fantastic opportunity to undertake an international design and build challenge within rural Tanzania, applying engineering skills and knowledge developed in university. A vital aspect of this challenge involved improving the country’s access to basic amenities such as water and sanitation facilities, an issue which is particularly deficient in the Dodoma region where almost 50% of the population have no access to safe drinking water supply, and 90% having none to improved sanitation. In tackling this challenge, an essential feature of this international experience required my team, the engineers, to communicate and engage with the local community to understand their most significant needs while considering the impact our work would have on all age generations throughout the village.

In the initial stages of the expedition, myself and five other university colleagues travelled to Tanzania and arrived in Dar Es Salaam airport at approximately 10:00 AM, where it was extremely sunny with temperatures rising as high as 40°C. We spent the first week of the expedition at Raleigh’s field base in Morogoro, a five-hour trip away from the capital of Tanzania, Dar Es Salaam, and this week presented some valuable guidance on how the team would embark on the upcoming tasks. It involved meeting many of the other volunteers, understanding the culture of Tanzania and more importantly understanding our responsibilities for our design and build challenge – this was important as it made me realise how a fundamental aspect of this project required us to learn the in-country aspects to then consider before partaking in the design.

Throughout the design and build challenge, my team (Alpha 3) consisted of six students (including myself) from Newcastle University, along with eight other volunteers, who either came from different countries or were Tanzanian volunteers. Personally, I found this very important as travelling to Tanzania required my team to have a basic knowledge of the language; although I found this initially difficult, having in-country volunteers allowed me to improve my communication as it was easier to learn from them too.

The design and build challenge

My team’s design and build challenge was located in Mvungurumo, a remote village within the north-eastern region of Dodoma. The project involved the construction of a set of toilet blocks and the installation of a water tank facility. The new set of toilet blocks were designed to replace the existing toilet blocks, which was over capacitated by 400 students (including both boys and girls), and the several teachers. While the existing toilets occupied six latrines, the main problem concerned the lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene due to the absence of water supply. This clearly highlighted the importance of the task at hand – to improve hygiene and sanitation in the school through Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) lessons, and the provision of reliable water supply.

Life on the expedition involved eight hour working days with early 08:00 AM starts, where the temperature would severely increase at each hour. The project required numerous amounts of manual labour, where digging, concreting, brick-laying and steel bar cuttings formed a focal point of the tasks in constructing the toilets. The design for the new set of toilet blocks consisted of three designs for the boys, girls, and a separate teacher block for the school. The girls’ toilets had a particular design focus, where a menstrual hygiene management room was added to aid the menstrual hygiene for female students – this was important given that many girls in the village had started to drop out of school due to the lacking privacy and absence of adequate facilities.

Our team’s project was a continued development from the previous group’s work, and it was seen that much of the work was behind schedule due to limited material supplies. With only 18 days to finish all essential tasks, careful planning, team management and communication were at the forefront for the delivery of a successful project.

After the 18-day period had completed, we had managed to achieve our own objectives, along with extra-curricular tasks which added value to the overall project. These included the construction completion of the male and female students’ toilets, the erection of the teacher’s toilets, installation of the water tank, and the provision of WASH lessons, where many students’ in the school had learnt of the importance to maintain good hygiene levels.

Life in the remote village of Mvungurumo

The Tanzania expedition offered a unique opportunity for myself and my team to see the social aspects of sustainability in this country and through all tasks in the design and build challenge. While the majority of university modules in my course (Civil & Structural Engineering) have addressed the importance of sustainability, I was highly overwhelmed by the difference that engineers can make in the developing world. As well as the provision of appropriate infrastructure in Mvungurumo, another priority of this expedition was to ultimately raise awareness for the importance of good health and hygiene practices to enhance the impact of the new facilities provided. Much of this was achieved through WASH lessons with many of the school students, community meetings with villagers of different ages.

When initially arriving in the village, I was nervous with how the community may welcome our group as we were among the first foreigners in Mvungurumo (along with the previous group who visited). However, it was overwhelming to see how welcoming the community were; many of us were invited to church services, to play football, and allowing us to engage with many of the children – a fantastic way to finish the day off after working! All of our group and the community formed a solid bond which enormously motivated us to complete the task at hand. Effectively, we managed to finish our objectives before our set period, given the small time that may have been given to us for the project.

The particular highlight of my trip was on the 15th day of our time in Mvungurumo Village, where a ceremony took place on ‘Action Day’. This day presented an extraordinary occasion for my team to fulfil our bond with the community. This was achieved through numerous activities, games, dancing and speeches to commemorate the efforts that us, Raleigh International and many of the villagers as a whole made to enhance the way of life for much of the community. This day also allowed every person to appreciate one another for their efforts in this project. As an engineer, this ceremony really made me aware of how much difference the design and build challenge can have on a community, where much of the village residents were able to express what they had learned in community meetings and in school lessons. However, I felt that these meetings, coupled with the abundant combination of ideas shared between the multitude of engineers and volunteers effectively made this project successful, and thus this made the Action Day ceremony more special for myself as an engineer.

Advice for future students embarking on the design and build challenge

The Global Engineering module was a truly fantastic experience for myself as a prospecting engineer, and I am so glad I participated in a project that made a far-reaching difference. This expedition offered a once in a lifetime experience, providing the chance to adapt, learn and work in a completely different culture while living without modern technology in the 18 days I was in my village. For anyone seeking, considering or weighing up the option to participate in this challenge, I cannot recommend this opportunity enough and hope to offer useful advice on some aspects of the project.

Fundraising for the expedition was challenging as this occurred during the degree modules and required continuous commitment. I would highly recommend making the earliest start while using any term-breaks as opportunities to plan and partake any fundraising activities. It would also be much useful doing this with a group of people, not only because of the possibility of reaching the fundraising target sooner but also because it provides the opportunity to bond with potential team members – although this may be time-consuming! On the other hand, setting personal targets for fundraising can sometimes help motivate you to complete this task sooner.

An essential aspect of this expedition allowed volunteers to take ownership of the project, where effective decisions could be made. While it was surprising to see Raleigh staff members take a backseat, the control of the project allowed me to see how much I could develop a good understanding of the challenge, while considering the needs of the community and the scale of works to be completed in a short period. I would strongly advise breaking down each task and communicating with every person involved in the project to solve construction problems before site work while acknowledging the health and safety of all colleagues and the outer community.

On top of the design and build challenge, there are opportunities to go on a week’s trek and potentially a safari across the country with Raleigh. This presents another chance to make more friends, create stronger bonds and develop any prior weaknesses!

Personally, the Tanzania expedition was a life-changing experience which enabled me to improve as an engineer in tackling real-world engineering problems through a social aspect and was amongst the highlight of my life. For this reason, I cannot recommend this module enough for any future students looking to see where this experience takes them!

Costa Rica team photo, Newcastle University, Raleigh International

Raleigh Expedition to Costa Rica

In this blog post Lizzie, a Stage 4 Civil Engineering student, tells us all about her involvement in the Raleigh International expedition to Costa Rica…

It is true that nothing in the lead up to departure can prepare you for your Raleigh expedition. After a long and weary 24 hours of travelling (not to mention the 3am start), a tired bunch of 11 engineers arrived in San Jose. Exhausted, we longed for a bed and a goods night sleep… how naïve we all were.

Training base location
Training base location

We were taken to a school sports hall where we spent our first night on the floor, before being taken to the training base location at Grana de Ore. Spirits were running high after being treated to a traditional Costa Rican breakfast of Gallo Pinto, (little did we know we would be subject to porridge for the next 40 breakfasts). We completed our four days of training, giving us an insight into what was in store for us.

Typical sleeping arrangement
Typical sleeping arrangement

Tsirbäklä

Next stop, Trisbäklä A two-hour minibus ride, followed by a four-hour trek through the jungle and across some questionable bridges, rucksacks fully laden, we arrived in Tsirbäklä – home for the next three weeks. A quick duct tape job of our ‘bedroom’ (recommendation: don’t miss off the kit list, it will become your best friend against spiders and cockroaches), mosquito nets up, roll mats down and we were ready for our first meal, rice and beans.

 Trek route into Trisbäklä
Trek route into Trisbäklä

Panic not, whilst rice was the staple component of every meal, including one breakfast, we had a cook sent from heaven who treated us to 4pm snacks every day of the most delicious pancakes and empanadas – food was no issue. Every effort was made to make the environment as homely as possible for everyone, with cleaning rotas, ‘family’ dinner times, more card games than I’ve ever played and competitive quizzes. I settled into the routine surprisingly quickly and was ready to tackle the school build.

Further along the trek route
Further along the trek route

Construction Phase

The main purpose of the expedition was to construct a kindergarten, extending the educational opportunities of the community we were staying in. The process was hard work, starting first with excavating and levelling out the ground, using tools very different to those in the UK and struggling with unpredictable weather conditions.

The site pre-construction
The site pre-construction

Teamwork and determination saw us onto the next stage: building the frame. I personally found this difficult due to my sufficient lack of experience in carpentry skills. With encouragement and tips from my peers, I soon had the hammer work nailed! Up went the frame and we began the concrete mixing and pouring, for the floor. Again, very strenuous but incredibly rewarding as work was fast paced by this point and the final result was in sight. Half a splash of paint to the building (the school children were to finish painting the rest of the building) and voilà, a fully constructed kindergarten was successfully delivered within three weeks. Sounds easy writing it out, but there were many challenges and lessons learned along the way.

Site after construction
Site after construction

The greatest challenge was the large team, comprising people from different backgrounds, nationalities and languages, working in such a small space. It very quickly became apparent that patience and communication were vital for success. My interpersonal skills increased and I learnt how to compromise in finding solutions, as this was very different to usual solutions at home . The words “Mañana Mañana” will forever ring in my ears, reminding me of the laid back and relaxed attitude of the locals.

Community Integration

Whilst our main purpose in Tsirbäklä was to deliver the school, it was also an opportunity to integrate with the local community, experiencing their culture and learning why the project was important to them. From house visits to adopting Pablo the local dog, we truly felt welcomed and appreciated during our stay. Weekly football matches between the community and our team turned very competitive as we showcased some of Newcastle’s finest football talent, successfully taking the final win.

Weekly football match with the locals
Weekly football match with the locals

Teaching English lessons every morning to the school children and visiting the homes of community members gave us a real insight into the community lifestyle and into the opportunities that would be further available as a result of our work here. Our final day concluded with a community celebration where we sang, ate and played together. It was at this point where the realisation of how much the school meant to the community hit me; I have brought this home with me and remain very self-aware of opportunities that surround me, conscious not to take things for granted.

Community house visit
Community house visit

Trek Phase

The final phase of the expedition concluded with a six-day trek, covering 75km across the mountainous region. This was the hardest physical and mental challenge I have ever faced, pushing me out of my comfort zone and achieving things I didn’t think were possible. The relationships formed with my team were surprisingly strong over such a short amount of time; we supported, encouraged and helped each other to reach our goal. The views will remain some of the most breath-taking, spectacular memories I have experienced.

Views from the final trek phase
Views from the final trek phase

Home

Upon my return, I have been asked countless times for a single highlight of my trip. This is impossible for me; I am unable to single out one aspect of such as amazing experience. The number of memories experienced in only five weeks in such an amazing country are endless, and there isn’t a single one that hasn’t left a lasting story in my mind.

Whilst clichéd, I find myself profoundly agreeing with the famous Saint Augustine saying, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only one page”. I simply wish that everyone could receive the fantastic opportunity of completing a Raleigh expedition.

If you would like to find out more about studying Engineering at Newcastle visit our webpages here: https://www.ncl.ac.uk/engineering/undergraduate or chat to one of our students on our Unibuddy instant messaging platform (scroll to the bottom of the page).

International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Today, 11th February, is the United Nation’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Over the past few years there has been a global push to engage more women and girls in science in order to reduce the gender imbalance within the STEM industries. Whilst progress has been made, still more needs to be done. Our fact file below highlights the existing issues with regards to gender representation within science and engineering.

Collectively, we need to work together to inspire young women to pursue careers in science. At Newcastle University we have a fantastic team of outreach officers who’s job it is to encourage young people to engage with STEM. Take a look at the different workshops they offer here.