When well-crafted, the materials civil engineers use are made to last. The Via Appia or Appian Way, built in 312 B.C., connected Rome to Italy’s southern regions. Some sections of the road, constructed using massive stone blocks of concrete made from volcanic ash and lime cement, are still in use today, over 2,300 years later.
For Florida Gulf Coast University civil engineering and construction management majors, knowledge of building materials is the cornerstone of their craft. A successful career in these fields demands a comprehensive understanding of the materials that form the building blocks of an architectural structure.
“Most people are confused that all concretes are made the same way with the same materials. But concrete is made to meet a specific job requirement,” says Claude Villiers, a professor of environmental and civil engineering in U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering.
Each semester, students in Villiers’ civil engineering materials class conduct laboratory experiments to design concrete mixes for infrastructure use.
They also evaluate the effects of replacing virgin coarse aggregates in concrete mixtures with recycled aggregates. Villiers’ use and testing of recycled materials aligns with FGCU’s sustainability mission.
A messy lesson
On a dry-erase board in his classroom, Villiers outlines the concrete-making process. It’s a mix of materials (coarse and fine recycled aggregates, admixture and cement) and paste (tap water acting as a glue to provide strength).
In the outdoor Wright Construction Group Methods Laboratory adjacent to Villiers’ classroom, a free-standing cement mixer sits on a canvas drop cloth on the lab’s concrete floor.
Sturdy paint trays hold the dry aggregate materials for the day’s lesson and test. A hose hooked up to the side spigot of a utility sink sits curled on the floor, its nozzle draped over the side of a cinder block.
Villiers has a group of students measure dry materials and water before pouring everything into the mixer. It’s like watching someone bake for the first time as puffs of dry materials vanish in dusty clouds above the students’ heads and water sloshes out of the paint tray.
The cement mixer spins with a deafening sound, like rocks tumbling in a clothes dryer. The civil engineering and construction management students crowd around, close enough to see but far enough to avoid the occasional flying spatter of wet concrete.
As Villiers tilts the machine’s open mouth down to offer a better look inside, a cry goes up in the crowd.
A surprised but smiling student wipes a fat blob of wet concrete from his face. Those near him check their clothes, and everyone else laughs with relief at avoiding the line of fire.
A second group scoops the fresh batch of student-made concrete into a cone to identify slump, an indicator of the fluidity of fresh concrete.
“I’m looking for 3 inches of slump, and we have 7,” Villiers says, lifting the cone as the thick concrete barely oozes. “Sometimes, it goes that way.”
80 FGCU U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering Construction Management students are diving straight into local projects! This week, students visited Centro Apartments to learn about commissioning work and Insulated Concrete Forms. #WingsUp! 🏗️🦅 #FGCU #ConstructionManagement pic.twitter.com/3TJtRH3IGP— Florida Gulf Coast University (@fgcu) October 13, 2023
For the last materials test, a third group of students scoops layers of concrete into a bucket, tamping a metal rod into the mix and using a rubber mallet to settle it. The industry-standard test determines the strength of the freshly mixed concrete based on its air content.
The steps they learn this week will be repeated for a final test on the subject. The hardening concrete will be tested for compressive strength at 7, 14 and 28 days.
“Everything we do is real, not show and tell,” Villiers explains about the hands-on learning he provides. He often partners with manufacturers, including local aggregate producers and admixtures companies, to test their concrete mixes.
A practical education
Villiers’ students conduct these tests to put theory into practice while learning to troubleshoot issues.
“When civil engineers design, they need to know the strength of the material that they are using and the loads or forces, such as people, cars, furniture or wind, that will act on the particular member, like a column or arch. This way, the engineer can design the correct mix,” says Villiers.
His class focuses on the analysis, evaluation and hands-on laboratory testing of commonly used building materials. Students also learn about the structural integrity and environmental sustainability of materials.
It’s more than just another course — it’s a bridge connecting the classroom to the construction site students may someday manage. With a thorough understanding of building materials, civil engineering and construction management majors will be well-prepared for the challenges in their future careers.
Courses like this at FGCU empower students to build structures and roads that last far into a more sustainable future, one concrete block at a time.