# What type of math do civil engineers use?

I was wondering if my algebra teacher was right. She was an electrical engineer and said that in her field she used lots of algebra and calculus. I'm not exactly good at algebra, so would like to know if civil engineers also use a lot of algebra?

• All engineers use a lot of math. Especially algebra. Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 18:40
• why would you not believe your teacher when she described her work? Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 20:15
• Are you in high school or already in post-secondary? I ask because it sounds like you are in high school but to have an electrical engineer teaching math in a high school is unusual. They would usually teach at a university. Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 22:16
• There are many ways to be bad at algebra. The core ability to rearrange a problem it extremely important. Shifting around what you know into a view that is easier to understand, yielding insight isn't just for engineering.
– Abel
Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 12:20
• Answer to your title question: ALL THE MATH Commented Mar 27 at 2:09

What do you mean by "civil engineer"?

If that is one that designs buildings then they are interested in heat transfer. That means they will likely use CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) that uses mathematical techniques to predict fluid flow. Algebra, calculus and partial differential equations all turn up there.

If you mean by "civil engineering" building bridges, roads, dams etc then there are also lots of maths involved.

Really, if you want to do any branch of engineering get as much of the basics sorted, like algebra, as it will help support all the studies later on.

Also, once you start using algebra, and other maths, as a tool for something "real" then it "feels" different because it has a use leading to the completion of that task or problem.

• To concur with this answer, knowing algebra is going to be the least of your problems, particularly concerning maths.
– Fred
Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 19:21
• My impression is that heat transfer and ventilation calculations for buildings are usually done with semiempirical formulae, rather than by CFD, but the point still stands. Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 9:54
• @DanielHatton when we designed our house, we used several programs to calculate the heat losses as well as the passive solar gain and the ventilation. The trick was to get the benefits to match across the whole design. Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 10:25
• @SolarMike Are you saying that the internals of those programs were CFD? I'd be mildly surprised. I've got the source code of NREL OpenStudio around here somewhere, I suppose if I weren't so lazy I could look for myself. Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 11:21
• @DanielHatton Did I say that? There are many programs available to do useful things like calculating the position of the sun in the sky so one can work out were the sunshine hits the floor via the window. However, many programs use iterative methods to do their calculations so cfd or not is immaterial to the point. Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 11:24

Have you heard of linear algebra or matrices? Because when engineers say algebra, that's what we mean. The "regular" single equation algebra is a given the same way addition and multiplication are; Like knowing how to walk. You can't do calculus or any other kind of math without "regular algebra" because if you can't do algebra then you can't manipulate any equations.

You can't really judge if you're good at regular algebra in the first couple of years of exposure because it's very unnatural for humans. Just like playing a musical instrument is unnatural. It's more about mechanically keeping track of stuff than actually knowing anything.

I am an electrical engineer and it was mandatory for us to take some mech and civil in our first year. Even though electrical engineering is considered to use more math than other forms of engineering, I would say this is only at the highest levels. I think mechanical engineers run into more complicated math on a more regular basis and I would not be surprised if it was the same for civil seeing as how the main difference between the two is things that move and things that don't. The homework I saw MechEs do in undergrad was crazy.

• that's not what I mean when I say algebra. Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 8:42

Some engineers use advanced math daily, but the most math most engineers will see is in Excel formulas. The job you specifically do will determine what math you encounter. As a Mechanical Engineer I had two projects that required advanced math - modeling boiler emissions through stages of an electrostatic precipitator (modeled via integrals) and recalculating the optimum row depth equation in a warehouse (the differential of an equation). My peer ME's in manufacturing did none of those, they spec'ed equipment, determined pipe and duct sizes, and managed the projects.

Most engineering is done empirically, and the stuff that isn't tends to be done by software. I doubt a CE designing and managing highway construction will do much more than simple math. Designers of drainage systems or structures will use software.

Now, you absolutely will need to know and use math to get an engineering degree. Whether you actually us it or not is a different thing. It is hard for me to imagine thinking like an engineer, tho, without an inherent understanding of algebra and calculus, because those are so inherent to how the world works. The equations of motion are all derivatives and integrals of each other.

A non-exhaustive, civil engineering focussed list:

• Predicting how much load a beam/cantilever can support (and how much it will deflect) in flexure: algebraic rearrangement, substituting numbers into algebraic equations; if the beam cross-section is anything other than a rectangle, circle, or I-beam, integral calculus too.
• Size and directions of stresses on planes of weakness/joins in a structure: trigonometry, matrix algebra.
• Semiempirical description of mechanical properties of materials (e.g. soils) whose composition/structure you can't know precisely: logarithms, powers, linear and nonlinear regression.
• Setting times (and temperatures reached during setting) of cements and concrete: exponentials, differential equations, maybe finite difference method.
• Wind/water current loads (and associated torques) on structures: nondimensionalization, algebraic rearrangement, powers, logarithms, integral calculus.

You will need algebra in order to get an engineering degree, as you will need algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and an introduction to differential equations for a basic bachelor of science degree in the area of engineering that you are interested in.

Electrical engineering classes will use mathematics in a similar but different way than civil engineering, structural engineering, or mechanical engineering. For example, civil engineering will involve itself with land surveying and highway design, both which require a strong understanding of trigonometry. Electrical engineering will involve itself with alternating currents in circuits, and the relationship between voltage and current in an alternating current (AC) circuit will vary depending on the electrical components in the circuit, for which trigonometry is important as well as some advanced electrical engineering concepts such as frequency domain and imaginary number mathematical functions. Structural engineering and mechanical engineering use calculus and differential equations in dynamics problems such as seismic resistant design and vibration damping of mechanical equipment. The list goes on!

On a daily working basis, after graduation, you may find yourself in an engineering career that seldom uses algebra due to the extensive use of Excel spreadsheets and other computer programs that have automated the hand calculations that were routinely necessary, but you should be able to describe the basic algebraic formula that the computer software is applying to the problem, and be able to determine if the numerical method answers from the software make mathematical and 'real-world' sense.

Try approaching algebra as a second language that will serve you over the course of your career, you will find that there will be instances where being able to put some algebra up on a whiteboard to solve an engineering (or financial) problem will serve you well, and distinguish you from other engineers who have not kept up with their algebra and calculus.

Civil engineers use various types of math in their work, including algebra, calculus, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, probability, and differential equations. Additionally, they apply mathematical principles in specialized areas like structural analysis, steel structural design, and concrete structural design.

The Civil Notes app offers comprehensive resources covering these mathematical principles and specialized topics, providing valuable insights for both studying and practical application. Civil Notes