#CoursesGalore: Geotechnical Engineering

Ir Dr Dominic Ong from Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus talks about what to expect from a civil engineering course, with particular emphasis on geotechnical engineering.
Ir Dr Dominic Ong
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Geotechnical engineering is a sub-discipline of civil engineering, dealing with the mechanics and behaviour of soil and rock. It is an essential knowledge for any civil engineer as all civil engineering structures are either founded on the ground, constructed in soil or rock, or have interaction with its surrounding environment. Some construction activities where geotechnical engineering is featured prominently include hydropower dam construction, deep excavation for building basement, tunnelling, pipe-jacking and ground improvement works, among others.

To be a civil engineer, or more specifically a geotechnical engineer, one has to embrace technology, be it advanced soil constitutive model (theory), use of finite element analysis (software modelling) or high-tech construction technology. One such geotechnical case study is the use of trenchless ('No-Dig') technology via micro-tunnelling and pipe-jacking method for the installation of underground sewer pipelines. During underground sewer pipeline construction, trenchless technology is capable of mitigating disruptions to daily road traffic in a typical urban environment as it involves tunnelling deep below the surface.

Definition of geotechnical engineering

Geotechnical engineering encompasses the understanding of fundamental soil mechanics and applying these concepts to the design of civil engineering structures. 

Most civil engineering fields deal with the use of man-made materials, such as concrete and steel. The manufacturing process of these materials is stringently controlled so that they can be expected to perform well within their intended usage. Additionally, the properties of these materials are well-understood and can be quantified precisely in design standards.

However, soil and rock are geologically and naturally formed, without any possibility of quality control. As such, designing civil engineering structures on or in soil and rock require sound understanding of soil-structure interaction behaviour. 

Importance of geotechnical engineering in everyday life

Any construction on or in the ground requires geotechnical engineering knowledge. Thus, geotechnical engineering is all around us − from high-rise buildings, roads, dams, bridges, sewers and reinforced slopes to military defence bunkers and land reclamation projects. Geotechnical engineering is really all around us.

In terms of landmarks, the application of geotechnical engineering knowledge is evidenced by micro-tunnelling works in the installation of deep underground sewers in Kuching, hillside development and basement construction in land-scarce cities like Kuala Lumpur and Penang, the foundation system for the Petronas Twin Towers and road tunnelling works for the SMART tunnel.

Inside geotechnical engineering 

All undergraduate civil engineering students learn soil mechanics in the second year, which involves geology as well as fundamental behaviour and properties of soils and rocks. In the third year, geotechnical engineering emphasises on the application of the fundamental theories and concepts learned in soil mechanics to the practical design of civil engineering structures. 

Subsequently, final year students have the option to take geotechnical engineering-related research topics as their final year project to enhance their understanding in the field.

Is it for you?

Potential civil engineering students are expected to:

  • have good fundamental understanding of mathematics and physics
  • be inquisitive
  • have a scientific mind
  • be able to think outside-of-the-box
  • possess leadership and presentation skills
  • be able to work in teams
  • have a good command of English.

What to look for?

Potential civil engineering students should ensure that their university of choice: 

  • offers accredited civil engineering degrees
  • has a team of dedicated and well-qualified lecturers
  • has strong research credentials to enhance innovation, cutting-edge technologies and environmental sustainability
  • has excellent laboratory facilities to enhance learning experience
  • has strong relationship and support from the industries, who will eventually be the employers of graduates.

Working in civil/geotechnical engineering 

Civil engineering graduates may work as consultants, contractors, project managers or site engineers in industries such as construction, oil and gas, mining, hydropower, ship-building and property development.

Malaysia requires many civil engineers as it is a developing country with a vision to achieve the developed nation status by 2020. As such, many mega projects such as the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and new Central Business District (CBD) in KL, the high-speed rail link between KL and Singapore, the Tun Razak Exchange, the underwater tunnel in Penang and the hydropower dams in Sarawak, among others, are in the pipeline. 

Job opportunities for civil engineers, therefore, look bright in the coming years.