Civil engineering appeals to me but I struggle with math. Will I be ok?

For background, I’m a senior in High School planning on applying as a Civil Engineering major. I like the hands-on components of AP Physics and AP Enviro Sci, and I have aspirations to improve our sustainable infrastructure to help create a more “Green” planet.

I used to full on despise math, until my 8th grade math teacher came down from heaven and actually got me to at least be willing to sit down and do it. For me, having a good math teacher and learning environment makes a huge difference, and I may not always do perfect in the class (and I generally don’t understand the late concepts until we review them in the next class) but I can least handle it.

Right now, I am pulling my hair out over AP Calc. I don’t think I’ve ever hated a class this much. I don’t know if it’s because the proctor sucks (which he does), or because I’m stuck at home learning over Zoom, or some other reason, but I cannot stand the thought of learning this level of math at the college level.

At one level, I’m trying not to dismiss engineering too quickly because I’m having a bad experience. But at the other, it’s not an experience I’d like to repeat especially since I have other career paths that are appealing to me, like environmental science and law. It’s very hard for me to remember that the math is fun when I can apply it to something more tangible, but I’m not looking forward to getting that far.

So basically that basically was a really long way to ask the following question: How extensively will I need to learn higher level math in college, and how much of that will be needed for my career? Those of you who are engineers and didn’t like math, how did you get through it? Was it better to learn it in college than in high school? And finally, what might be some “similar but different” pursuits that are like Civil, but don’t quite have so much math?

If you hate math now you’ll really hate it in Engineering school. You need to have a positive relationship with higher level math to get through the math requirements of engineering. In my experience most engineering students that drop out of engineering do so due to difficulties with math. That being said, learning Calc on Zoom must not be easy, and it sounds like your teacher might not have the knack for online teaching. I suggest you look into a popular online calculus class (through Edx for example). I’m not really familiar with everything that is out there but many of these courses are taught by superb professors at a variety of institutions. Another idea would be to find a tutor that could work one-on-one with you. Math is too beautiful to give up on. It can be tough at times but it is worth all the hard work. I really hope you can make it work for you. If not, don’t fret. There are many paths in life as you yourself mentioned. I feel for you and all students trying to learn right now.

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A civil engineering major will require single variable calculus, multivariable calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations as actual math courses. The math material will be used in other courses, such as calculus-based physics and various engineering courses.

Regarding “apply[ing math] to something more tangible”, in your AP physics course, can you see the obvious applications of calculus, even if you are in the non-calculus-based AP physics 1 or 2?

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CivE has a lot of math. It’s necessary because you have to understand the theory of what makes a structure, and the materials it’s made from, strong enough to withstand the complex forces it has to withstand.

If this is the kind of work you really want to do, then get lots of support and push through it. But if the nitty-gritty of designing mechanically-sound structures isn’t the part that excites you, then there are other adjacent professions that you might like more.

If you’d enjoy the implementation of these designs more than their development, then consider Construction Management. Here’s one program that gives a pretty good description and shows you the kind of coursework involved. Some of the CivE content is still included, but there’s less of that theory and more of the site management, financial management, policy/law and so on.

If you’re interested in design, problem-solving, and sustainability on a community level, consider a program in urban planning, urban studies, urban ecology, city and regional planning, etc. Here’s an example: You can get involved in a lot of human-environmental interface issues like transportation, for example.

If you would like a hands-on, studio-based program focusing on the design of outdoor and/or public spaces, consider landscape architecture. Some programs are more urban-planning focused, like the Urban Landscape program at Northeastern, and others are more traditional like what you’d find at Cal Poly.

CU Boulder has a separate school of environmental design, with a common first-year program that then branches into specialties in architecture, landscape architecture, sustainable planning and environmental product design. Can be a great program if you’re not sure up front what direction you want to go in; it’s very project based, and a nice smaller program within a large school.

Many, many schools have programs in Environmental Studies, Environmental Analysis, Sustainability, Environmental Science, etc. Some have specialty degrees or tracks focusing on Geographic Information Systems, which can be a very marketable skill that is computational, but not higher math per se - so maybe a good skill-set to pursue if you like working with computers but not so much the calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, etc.

Hope that helps. It really depends what you want to do. Plenty of people have pushed through the math even though it wasn’t their greatest gift, if engineering was what they truly wanted; but that’s not the only way to work in your general area of interest.

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Please go to YouTube and look up Professor Leonard. He teaches Calculus among other math class. The engineering students on Reddit say they would not have made it through engineering school without him. They say he has a gift for teaching. Best of luck to you.


My kids used to tell me that the classes they were having issues with their teacher sucked.

In college you will have plenty of professors that suck. Don’t use that as an excuse. Get help. Khan Academy online is one source but a better source is that teacher of yours. Just tell him your having some troubles and you need some help. Teachers typically like to teach. They might not be the best at lecturing though.

Also look into Environmental Engineering as a civil engineering subset.

As far as what you will need in real practice. Probably like Cad and excel. But you will need to take the required math classes to get to graduate. Look up a few of your target schools and they will list the classes you need to take. As hard as the math is it gives you the skills to analyze and interpret and to think at a different level and process.

Look at your other major choices. You might find out they require math also.

Once again, get help now. Email your teacher after you read this. Once you get it, it might become more enjoyable.

Look into Environmental Design.

Yes, you need lots of math for any kind of engineering.

Engineering is all about applying math and science to solve problems.

If you struggle with math, you will struggle with engineering.

My d is a college junior in engineering. As noted, it’s all applied math. Her fluids prof described the course on the first day of this semester as a “festival of calculus”.

All engineering students will need calc through multi variable, plus diff eq, and linear. My D also needed a linear algebra based statistical modeling and probability class. For students who start in Calc I, that’s at least five semesters of having a math course. There are enough math requirements that most engineers could easily add a math minor.

That all said, I’m not sure I’d throw in the towel on engineering just yet. Zoom calc doesn’t seem great to me either. Try using Kahn Academy or working with a tutor. Can you firm zoom study groups with friends in the class?

Thank you to everyone who has replied so far.

I’m trying not to give up on engineering altogether, and I’ll look at some of the alternate careers people have suggested (EnvSci looks most appealing right now, but I’ll give more serious consideration to them all).

I am part of a study group and online resources are helping, but I think I agree that if I’m hating this now I will hate it in college. But then again I don’t wanna close the door too early.

Thank you!

@rewndthemusic: Many schools have different levels of Calculus and Math courses depending upon your major.

UC Davis for instance (since you asked about Environmental Science) has 3 levels of Calculus classes.

Basic Calculus usually for Non-stem majors
Calculus for Science majors
Calculus for Engineering majors

You could always start with an Engineering based Math course in college and see how you do. If you find the Math overwhelming, then you can always change your major with lower Math requirements.

Much easier to switch out of Engineering than switch into later in the process.

Some responses to specific people’s comments:

@aquapt Thank you for your very through response! I am considering an Environmental Studies degree, either emphasizing GIS or policy. I had not thought about construction management, from a surface approach it seems worth looking into.

@ucbalumnus When I took AP Physics 1 I could tell that we were using Calc concepts without actually using them. Such as taking an integral but with a rectangle or simple shapes I could find the area to computationally or using the area function on our lab software. If it were that simple, I’d be OK with engineering, but I think having to learn to do all that manually through diff equations does not sound appealing.

@gumbymom that’s an interesting strategy. I’m going to at least get through my Calc midterm in Oct and from there re-evaluate before I make any decision.

Thanks again everyone!

Small correction here: the UCD calculus courses are

16A, 16B, 16C = Short calculus (usually for social science majors; probably would be for business majors if UCD had a business major)
17A, 17B, 17C = Calculus for biological sciences
21A, 21B, 21C, 21D = Calculus (for physical sciences, math, and engineering majors; 21D is vector analysis (multivariable calculus))

Many other colleges have similar options for calculus courses. (Note: UCD is on the quarter system with three 10-week quarters instead of two 15-week semesters per academic year.)

Married to and related to several civil engineers over here.

They love math. They live, breathe, talk in math. Even when their jobs take them further and further away from actually working as a civil engineer (which is what happens when you move into management and leadership positions- your job is about the people and the budgets, not the actual engineering) they still love nothing better than engaging on something “mathy”.

You aren’t deep enough into it to know whether you can make a go of it (and with work you likely could) but you might want to ask yourself whether the entirety of any engineering discipline is going to bring you joy. The math is not a pesky requirement that you get out of the way early sophomore year- it really represents the language that your students, professors, and later on- colleagues will engage in.

To me-- that’s the question to answer. There are lots of other career paths (several already mentioned) that will put you in the thick of really hard environmental questions- policy around carbon offsets, urban planning which plots out planet-friendly transportation systems, public health which deals with the impact of fossil fuel vs. wind power on lungs, pregnancy, all sorts of diseases which are exacerbated by environmental triggers, real estate development devoted to better land and water use, finance which uses the power of the purse (tax, investment, lending) to move the needle on sustainable development and growth.

All of these require SOME math- but finance for example- pretty basic stuff. Public health- statistics, which is a very applied form of math and may come easily to you. And the people in these fields will share many of your interests and values, but math is likely not the language they live and breathe.

I’ve spent vacations detouring to see a bridge and then listened to a discussion of the load factors (some calculation which I cannot follow) and spent evenings listening to debates about how quickly sewage moves through a pipe and how that will vary depending on five different factors, each with their own algorithm and computer model which gets tweaked according to average rainfall and the percentage of pollutants in the soil. Or maybe it’s the lead in the pipes?

You’ve got time to evaluate SO many other cool careers!!!

I am a civil (structural) engineer. I cannot imagine studying civil engineering with the feelings towards math you are describing.

And @blossom is right. Engineers love discussing this stuff. My dad, husband, second cousin, and I are all structural engineers. The rest of the family rolls their eyes when they see us looking up at roof structures, bridges, etc. They know they’re about to hear a long discussion, ha.

Hence one reason I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better suited for something else. Whenever I hear engineers start rambling about stuff in techno speak, I do some combo of roll my eyes, tune them out, or leave the room. That being said, math was always easy for me. Math made sense. I see numbers and patterns everywhere.

For me, calculus was a major part of every class. You had to be at least decent at it to graduate. But in my real life, whoever said autocad and excel was spot on. I do public works project - roads, bridges, storm/sanitary sewer, site design, traffic, etc.

My perspective, as a faculty member in engineering, is not too dissimilar from what you’ve already been told. You will not need to be a mathematical genius to make it through an engineering curriculum, but you can’t really hate math, either. You need, at worst, a neutral relationship with it. I primarily teach junior-level courses in my department, and by far the students who struggle the most are those who continue to struggle with the math as opposed to the higher-level applications. Having said that, I am a pretty firm believe in the idea that anyone can learn math and therefore be an engineer. You just have to make sure you get to the point where you are comfortable with it before starting an engineering program so you don’t start from behind.

The good news is that many (most?) engineers don’t actually use the heavy math as much once they graduate. It’s important to understand the nuts and bolts of how all of the tools you will use later work, but not important to their day to day use. Some engineers do still use heavy math at work, but it’s easy enough to avoid those career paths if you aren’t interested.

Having said all of that, as a younger faculty member, I still have vivid memories of my high school and college calculus classes. The bottom line here is that a lot of (not all) high school calculus classes stink. They cover the topics on the AP exam, teach students tricks to do well on the exam, and totally gloss over what any of it actually means. That was my experience in high school.

Thankfully I started from a position of liking math, so I was able to enjoy the topic without enjoying the class by exploring a bit on my own. Obviously that isn’t the case here, so if you want to be comfortable with calculus and therefore set yourself on a solid path for engineering, I agree with the others that looking into some other support resources would be great.

Personally, I am a huge fan of the calculus series produced by Prof. Robert Ghrist of Penn. I took his actual in-person course as an undergraduate and his former university and found it to be fantastic, and now he has a version of it available on Coursera and YouTube (links below). It’s not super lengthy, focuses on concepts and applications (rather than calculation), and is targeting beginners.

EDIT: Apparently CC filters out Coursera links, so just follow the link from his page to get to it if interested.

I am in a semi similar situation at the moment as well. I struggled with math throughout high school and took a very long break afterward(I graduated 15 years ago.) After much thought about possible career choices, holding lots of jobs in various fields and finishing all of my transfer GE requirements(except math and science) I decided that engineering was the career that suited me best. I originally dropped out of college because I placed at the lowest level of math and would have been required to take 7 math courses to transfer. After deciding on engineering, I spent the better part of this past year teaching myself math starting at elementary level arithmetic, using available resources such as Khan Academy. I entered into an accelerated math program at my local community college that combines pre calc I and II into one semester and I am struggling a bit. But I am determined to be an engineer. I am spending around 40 hours a week studying and still having some trouble, so I changed my approach. I started looking at my learning behavior. How do I learn best? What are some examples of subjects, classes, etc where I excelled? I began analyzing differences and am now applying these principles to my current study habits. For me, learning math requires much more work than other subjects but it can be done. I look for information outside of class(Professor Leonard on youtube is a good resource) and try to focus on understanding concepts rather than memorizing processes. I noticed that I was excellent at math until high school when we were introduced to algebra, but I did fine in geometry. I still struggle with algebra concepts but I can do calculus when it’s in the context of physics equations. I realized that this is because algebra is taught pretty poorly. Geometry and physics are applied math subjects. If I knew why I had to solve for x in a contextual setting, then it would be easier to remember the processes for finding the solution. So I searched for math concepts explained through animations and it all makes sense now. What I am getting at is that you can do whatever you set your mind to in the arena of academics. It may be a tremendous struggle, and that effort and possible set back is something you will have to weigh out for yourself. But let me tell you from the stand point of someone who went back to school at 30, you’ve got time to figure it all out. What if you fail a class? You can take it again. Just keep working at it. If you really want something, just know that the harder you work for it, the more valuable it will be to you when you reach your goal. I will go on to master math and you can too if you choose to.

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@MusicManDan1987 …Great explanation. To be an engineer to have to want it and be persistent. If you ever read Reddit there are engineers telling their stories of failing a few classes and not getting great grades but they are now the head of X department leading teams of engineers…

Thank you to everyone for the very helpful comments! @blossom and @MaineLonghorn 's answer helped me a lot. I think that I have a ton of other environmental career options to look into if I’m not too keen on the math. But then again I’m trying not to let my negative experience in AP Calc ruin my interest in math (thanks to @boneh3ad and others for helping illuminate that). The good news is that I have the better part of a month to make up my mind on what goes on my application, so I don’t exactly have to make a decision tomorrow or anything, but you all have given me a ton to think about as I’m going there. Thank you!