Thinking outside

The Classroom

From the stairs of Duke Chapel to the most remote parts of the world, civil and Environmental engineering students discover the fun in seeing practical knowledge put to work.

“When I first started my career, I was outside all the time.
I was taking water samples, I was putting in wells and I was overseeing construction projects,” said Duke civil and environmental engineering professor of the practice David Schaad. 


“It was really fun to watch an idea take physical form in the world and being involved in it from the ground up.”

Schaad’s enthusiasm for engineering outside of the boundaries of the conventional classroom has become a hallmark of the classes he teaches at Duke. He hooks students early, in the introductory civil engineering course called “Engineering the Planet,” with unorthodox demonstrations of basic engineering principles. He teaches about the concept of force per unit area, for example, by lying prone on a bed of nails with a cinderblock balanced on his chest, wearing a UNC shirt, and taunting the Duke mascot into smashing it with a sledgehammer. (Right before the Duke-UNC game, of course.)

Next he leads an expedition to the top of Duke Chapel, breaking up the 239 steps to the top with lessons on preservation and thoughts about how the architect Julian Abele would have made his calculations in 1930, the year the cornerstone was laid. 

Then, on the heels of Halloween, he reels students in with the pumpkin trebuchet. They learn to launch tennis balls first, then graduate to catapulting overripe gourds across the lawn.

Having fun helps students engage with the subject matter from day one—that’s a no-brainer. With high engagement comes easier mastery of the materials, and with mastery comes the confidence to apply engineering skills and knowledge to real engineering challenges.

As Duke civil engineering students progress to more advanced courses like water resources management, they’ll go on field trips to the university’s water reclamation pond,  to discuss how it collects and recycles rainwater and storm runoff to save millions of gallons of potable water every year. They might take a class hike alongside the Eno River to survey the old pump station and discuss the history of Durham’s water supply.

If they take construction management they’ll head to downtown Durham to meet with city officials who walk them through processes for planning and zoning, design review, and inspections. They’ll confer with engineers onsite at major highway expansion projects.

As they continue to build their skills, Duke CEE students frequently get involved with organizations like Duke Engineers for International Development or the NAE Grand Challenges Scholars program—both of which Schaad advises—once they realize they already have the necessary skills and knowledge they need make a positive impact in the world.

Seeing the positive impacts engineers can make in the real world gives students—and professors—an even bigger dopamine boost than flinging an overripe pumpkin across the lawn does.


 “Our society could not function without clean water, or basic sanitation, or the roads that we drive on, or the buildings we work and live in. Civil engineers save lives and make civilization possible,” said Schaad. “Seeing that, being part of it—it’s exciting and it’s attractive to people who want to make a real difference.”

Schaad's "Engineering the Planet" class poses for a photo atop Duke Chapel

“I didn’t expect learning about the concept of tensegrity (tension and compression) to be interesting, but we demonstrated it in a really interesting way, by creating a tensegrity structure that lasted for a year on the engineering quad. It was very technical, but very rewarding to create.”

Ezra Melaku, Duke CEE student

Project Manager, DEID Bolivia 2022

Duke Engineers for International Development

Student members of Duke Engineers for International Development partner with professionals and volunteer workers in underserved communities on infrastructure projects like pedestrian and vehicular bridges, water catchments, and improved sanitation.

In a typical year, several student teams travel to multiple communities around the world.  A handful of DEID’s recent projects are highlighted below.

“DEID did a water project in Peru where the students performed calculations for a hydraulic grade line,” said Schaad. “And then when they turned on the valve, water came out at the elevation and pressure they had calculated. Those students will never forget that feeling of ‘wow, my calculations worked and now this community has water because of it.’”

Melaku was the project manager of a pedestrian bridge build in 2022 in Japo, Bolivia. The new bridge spans a deep, steep, rocky gorge that fills with rainwater seasonally, preventing travel in and out of the community. His team worked with professional engineers on the bridge’s design throughout the school year, then traveled to Bolivia in the summer to help construct it.

When he arrived in Japo, he was struck by the difficulty of the route that even the smallest children were taking to get to school every day. The new bridge offers a safe and reliable alternative to climbing up and down the gorge. Before the team left Japo, the community held a festive inauguration in appreciation of the new bridge’s significance.

“It’s one thing to talk about engineering making a difference, but when you can actually SEE engineering making a difference—not just the technological input, but the societal changes that impact both our students and the community members we’re partnering with, in tangible ways, that’s really meaningful,” said Schaad.