Monday, November 9, 2009

What I've been up to

(Besides pining for lost corn dogs, that is.)

In case you didn't feel you had a good handle on how much of a geek I am, uh, batten down the hatches.

Back in August I mentioned the then-upcoming Principles and Practice of Engineering (aka Professional Engineering, or PE) exam I would be taking this Fall. Well, it happened, on October 23rd. Here's a peek inside the world of engineering.

I'm trained as a structural engineer. This is a subset of civil engineering, broadly and poorly defined as the technical design of spaces and places and ways to get between them. If I'd been a civil engineering major as an undergraduate, I'd have taken other civil courses, like transportation (roads and rails), geotechnical (soil and foundations), environmental (water and treatment thereof), and so on. I wasn't. I was a physics major, and went to grad school for structural engineering. So my only engineering classes were structural, or related to structural. But, to be licensed to sign structural OR civil engineering drawings in the State of MN (something my employers would like me to be able to do), you have to pass the civil, rather than the structural PE. [Note: my previous company does this differently. They ask their structural engineers to take the Structural I exam, which is 8 hours on structural engineering alone. I will end up taking some version of that in the future, since some states that aren't Minnesota require it to sign structural drawings.] So the upshot is that when it came time for me to take the exam, I was looking at being tested on a bunch of stuff I'd never learned before.

In the Civil PE, everybody takes the same morning session, a four-hour-limited survey of civil engineering topics, which is listed as breaking down something like this (CHARTS!):

So, of the topics, only the last three listed here are ones I have significant background in, totaling 1/5 of the session. In the four-hour afternoon session, you pick which broad topic (geotechnical, water, transportation, construction, or structural) you want to take, so my whole 8-hour day was to break down like this:Hurrah! I was nominally over 50% in terms of topics I had any background in. To increase my chances, I took a PE review course offered by the MN Society of Professional Engineers along with a coworker. It provided a nice introduction to all those non-civil topics, which was then reinforced with some practice problems and sitting down with a couple colleagues who both passed the test last Spring.

There are a whole host of regulations to ensure that engineers taking the test do not cheat. You cannot bring anything that can communicate wirelessly into the room -- they make you leave your phone in the car or check it with them. You cannot bring your own writing utensil or any loose paper. You can only have a calculator from their narrow list of approved models (one or two model lines each of TI, HP, and Casio). The test is open-book, with one limitation: anything you bring in has to be bound, and three-ring binging counts as binding. In the room, you can tell which people are structural engineers, because they bring luggage instead of a box or crate:

So that's eighteen references*, two TI-30XII calculators (one borrowed), the instructions for the calculator, my asthma meds (just in case), the admission ticket for the exam, and Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, in case I was looking for distraction at lunchtime. Most of the books aren't mine, but borrowed from the structural & transportation groups at my firm. I did not use all the references, but there were several questions I would not have been able to answer without having brought certain books. Incidentally, that white binder at the top isn't even all of the AASHTO bridge design spec. Just the chapters I thought would be useful. I'm glad I'm in the building business.

So how much does a rolling suitcase full of engineering books weigh? I enrolled the suitcase in Wii Fit the night before the test to find out. I selected for its avatar the Mii based on Robert Evans that I made a couple years back. The suitcase is 3' tall, which with a weight of about 78 lbs gives it a body-mass index of 43.11:

Pretty bad, especially if, as this suitcase, you're only two years old.

Anyway, I felt pretty good about the test, and will find out in another 6-10 weeks whether I passed or not. I'd say more, but I'd hate to have the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying accuse me of somehow publishing their secrets. I'll let y'all know if I get to put new letters after my name in a couple months.

* For the truly strong of stomach, here is the list of references I took with me, from left to right, top to bottom, as shown in the photo above:
  • The Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute Design Manual
  • The American Institute of Steel Construction Manual, 13th Edition
  • Civil Engineering Reference Manual (textbook from our class - crucial for the morning)
  • Practice Problems for the Civil PE
  • The Transportation Review Board Highway Capacity Manual
  • The AASHTO Bridge Design Specification (select chapters)
  • Kassimali: Structural Analysis
  • Nilson, Darwin & Dolan: Design of Concrete Structures
  • American Concrete Institute Building Code and Commentary (ACI 318)
  • The International Building Code (IBC) 2006, select chapters, and various reference and design aids I've collected
  • Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures (ASCE 7) 2005
  • Notes and practice problems from the review class
  • Powerpoint slides and more notes from the class
  • Gere: Mechanics of Materials
  • American Wood Council National Design Specification and Manual
  • AASHTO: A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (the "Green Book")
  • Masonry Standards Joint Committee Building Code Requirements and Specification for Masonry Structures
  • ? & ?: Materials for Civil and Construction Engineers (I rarely use this book day-to-day, but I'm pretty sure it got me a point on the test)
Man, I'm glad I didn't have to pay for most of those codes and specs.


John said...

I think you'll like this , then:

Hope you did well on the exam.

Anonymous said...

Best of luck (retroactively)!

bootlegend said...

Which of those references did you actually use on the exam?

Fred said...

Well, in the morning I used the CE Reference Manual a lot, and also got some use out of the review class powerpoint, the construction materials book, and the highway capacity manual. There was a very good chance I might have ended up needing any of the others, especially the AASHTO Green Book, though.

In the afternoon, I primarily used the IBC, ASCE 7, AISC steel manual, ACI concrete code, and the MSJC masonry code, but was glad I had the AASHTO bridge book as well. I ended up not having to use the wood code, but this is *not* typical of most structural afternoon exams, as I understand it.

bootlegend said...

Thanks for the info. I just got the CERM package Friday and will be taking the Civil Exam with Structural depth too. I haven't done any general Civil in practice, so I am hoping that stuff is only topical in the morning.

Nice blog by the way.

Fred said...


The non-structural stuff is definitely limited to the morning. The CERM is great -- I suggest you tab the hell out of it. I also highly recommend a review class, if only to focus your studying in on the handful of subjects that they might actually cover in the morning (the CERM is much broader than what they test). I too have a non-civil background, as I mentioned, and found this approach really helpful.

Good luck on the test.