Advancing the Dissemination of the
Creative Art of Structural and Civil Engineering

Images courtesy of M. Garlock

“For all ... structures, efficiency and economy are absolutes, something all engineers must strive for, but elegance is the bulls-eye, if you hit elegance, and efficiency, and economy then you’ve reached a level called Structural Art.” - M. Garlock

What is Structural Art?

The term Structural Art was popularized by Professor David P. Billington of Princeton University in his 1983 book "The Tower and the Bridge." Professor Billington studied great works of engineering from the late 18th century to the modern era. These structures were developed with a conscious effort to create aesthetically pleasing, imaginative, and elegant designs, while meeting safety and serviceability requirements. A work of structural art seamlessly integrates elegance and efficiency, and is an honest representation of the forces flowing through a structure.

About this project

Recent reports from the White House and the National Academy of Engineering describe the need for the nation to increase student retention in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Uninspiring introductory courses, poor teaching, and lack of effective dissemination of best-practices are major obstacles that stand in the way of achieving these goals. With the aim of overcoming these obstacles, faculty members from Princeton University, Virginia Tech and the University of Massachusetts Amherst have partnered to disseminate an introductory civil engineering course suitable for both STEM and non-STEM majors, and enhance these course materials with research-based teaching methods such as active learning exercises.

These courses emphasize the creativity of the engineer along with the technical content. They demonstrate that engineering design involves "discipline and play", a term popularized by Professor David Billington, where discipline refers to technical skills, and play refers to creative and aesthetic exploration. The materials developed for these courses support instruction through the creative art of structural and civil engineering (CASCE).

Structural Art can be approached from a various avenues that will appeal to fields of study other than engineering. Structural art can be interpreted on scientific, social, and symbolic grounds.

  • Scientific: How is the structure designed to safely transmit loads to the ground and what materials are used?
  • Social: What are the short and long-term costs of the structure to society? What role does the structure play in the functioning of society?
  • Symbolic: What feelings does the structure inspire? What meaning does the structure carry for people interacting with it?

The outcomes of the project hold potential to advance knowledge regarding the effect that perceptions of engineers as "technicians" (as opposed to creative artists) has on STEM attrition and attraction; challenges and successes in teaching introductory engineering courses in institutions of different cultures and curricula; and strategies for supporting the successful adoption of an innovative course across diverse institutions.