The Master of Engineering in structural engineering program at Lehigh, led by professor of practice Jennifer Gross, PE, was started in 2008. The 10-month, 30-credit graduate program attracts students from all over the world and is enhanced by robust industry support.

The curriculum excels at balancing the theoretical with the practical, combining coursework with a group project focusing on the design of a real-world structure. Students graduate prepared to address the myriad performance and public welfare decisions involved in large-scale structural engineering projects, and they've gone on to jobs at places like AECOM, DeSimone Consulting Engineers, KCI Technologies, McLaren Engineering Group, Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Thornton Tomasetti, and Wiss Janney Elstner. Others have gone on to receive their Ph.D. in structural engineering.

Here, three current M.Eng. students talk about how they got here, what it's like designing a New York City high-rise, and what they hope to do upon completing their degrees.

Joshua Core received his undergraduate degree in civil engineering from Cal Poly. He's from Boron, California, which he says is a small desert town about 90 minutes from Los Angeles.

Gerardo De Colombres Sanchez is from Mexico and studied civil engineering at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Puebla.

Collin Melton is from Bridgewater, New Jersey, and received his B.S. in civil engineering from Lehigh in 2015.


How did you hear about the M.Eng. program in structural engineering at Lehigh?

Joshua: I went to undergrad at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, and I heard about Lehigh from a student here that was working with me at an undergraduate research program one summer. That was my only exposure to the university because I hadn't really done much research on east coast schools. When it came time to decide on graduate school, I looked at lists of the the top civil engineering graduate programs in the country and which of those had one-year structures programs. Lehigh was one of the best on those lists.

Collin: I actually knew about the M.Eng. program before I even got here to study my undergrad. I always knew I wanted to study civil engineering, and around the time I was a junior I started to weigh the pros and cons of going to grad school vs. jumping right into the field. I knew I wanted to do grad school eventually, and I thought it might be hard to take a year or two off once I'm into my career. So this seemed like a smart choice.

Gerardo: I'm from Mexico. I did my undergraduate studies at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Puebla, and my Steel Design teacher, Luis Hernandez, told me about this program and that I should apply. I had been looking for something in structures. He said this was a good program. I hadn't ever heard about it, but I went on the website, read all about it, and it sounded exactly like what I wanted.

What was it about the program that interested you?

Joshua: As I said, it was important to me that it was a one-year program, but beyond that, the design project. Definitely. Other programs I looked at had coursework and an exit exam, or some kind of individual research project, but the idea that you had this basically year-long assignment that so closely lined up with what I'd be doing in the industry made coming here a pretty easy choice for me.

Collin: I want to start working in a design firm when I'm finished, at least that's my plan right now, so I liked that it was project-based instead of research-based.

Gerardo: For me, it was the research centers. ATLSS and Fritz Lab. It's a big part of the learning experience to get to see work getting done. You know, it's not done on paper. Being in the Structural Behavior Lab feels a lot like real life. At my undergraduate university, we had labs, but not on the scale of those at Lehigh. I don't think many universities in the world have that.

How does the program compare to your expectations so far?

Joshua: It's everything I thought it would be. Challenging, for sure. Lehigh and Bethlehem have such a tradition with the steel industry. It's a big deal. Coming from the west coast, it's something that doesn't get emphasized so much, so I think being here has made me a more well-rounded student and engineer in that respect.

Collin: Yeah, it's tough, but I was ready for that. It's intensive. There aren't as many classes as an undergrad, but they're all tougher.

Gerardo: I didn't really know what to expect coming in. Of course, we use metric measurements in Mexico, so getting used to the American system threw me off a bit at first, but it's OK now. Other than that, everyone has been really friendly. The material covered in class is well-explained. The group is great. We've become very close.

Joshua: Yeah, all 16 of us hang out on the weekends. For the first Sunday of football season, we all got together to watch the games. Everyone brought their own dip. We ate a lot! San Luis Obispo has actually been named one of the happiest cities in America, so it's been a relief to find a community of people who has made Bethlehem feel like home, too.

Tell me about your design project.

Gerardo: So it's a 62-story building – a residential tower in New York City. It was set up through DeSimone. There's not one typical floor. Everything is unique, which will present an interesting challenge. We have to come up with solutions to make the whole thing buildable.

Joshua: Yes, the first two or three floors are sort of communal areas – lobbies, fitness center, things like that. The tower is where all the residential areas will be.

Collin: During the summer, we designed the live loads, the dead loads, the snow loads on the building, and the wind loads. Then we made load maps using the architectural drawings. And we did a write up on the whole thing.

Joshua: It's so weird coming from the west coast because we always design for earthquakes. It's our controlling design load. But here the seismic activity isn't very high, so it's mostly wind calculations.

Gerardo: There are four teams within the group, and each tackles the project in its own way. I'm on the green team, and we're working on defining some of the steel systems that could be used. We're going through some of the material in class and applying it to the design project.

Collin: Another great thing about the project is that at the end of the semester, we have a presentation where we'll talk in front of professors and people from the industry. There will be people from firms here. It'll be a great opportunity to network with potential employers.

Do you know what you want to do when you finish school? And has the program at all changed your future plans?

Collin: I had always thought design was my future, but I did an externship as part of the program with Wiss, Janney, Elstner (WJE). Professor Gross helped set that all up. They're a forensic engineering firm, and I spent a week with them in mid-August. They go to old buildings and renovate them. I thought it was really cool. It made me consider going in that direction with my career.

Gerardo: I like new design, but during my externship at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (SGH) in Washington, D.C., I learned about condition assessment of existing buildings, one of several things they practice. They have clients who want professionals to look at a structure and determine if something needs to be done to improve it. That was an eye-opening experience for me because I can't think of any firms in Mexico that do work like that. So it was really nice to learn about that kind of work, and it actually inspired me to take a condition assessment class this semester.

What are some skills or personality traits you should have if you're going to succeed in this program?

Joshua: You need a willingness to look into a problem you haven't come across in the past. Help yourself understand unfamiliar problems because in the real world, there won't be a professor or someone to fall back on if you don't know something. Be creative and unafraid.

Gerardo: Don't be afraid to make mistakes. If you are, you won't move forward.

Joshua: If you go through this program, you can show your employers that you can commit to something and follow through on it. It's a very demanding program, but industry is very demanding, so it's representative of the real world like I think other programs wouldn't necessarily be.

Gerardo: For me, ever since I decided to study civil engineering, I knew I wanted to focus on structures. I think this is the cherry on top of the sundae that I needed before I went out into the professional world.

By John Gilpatrick

Gerardo De Colombres Sanchez

Gerardo De Colombres Sanchez (pictured here in the M.Eng. computer lab) is one of 16 students currently earning his Master of Engineering degree in structural engineering in Lehigh's one-year, design-project-focused program.