IStructE Chartered Membership Exam Preparation Course through the eyes of a Mechanical and a Civil Engineer

Published: 03/03/2016

Who, What, Where, When, Why…?

In 2015 we attended the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE) Western Counties six week Chartered Membership Exam Preparation Course, held in the evenings at the University of Bristol.  For those reading this article who are members of other institutions and aren’t aware, structural engineers, amongst other things, need to pass a seven hour exam in order to gain their Chartered status, and many find this exam difficult to pass.

Therefore, you may ask, why in the world would a Mechanical and a Civil Engineer – both Chartered Engineers with their respective institutions – seek to become Chartered Structural Engineers by attending this course – and don’t they have anything better to be doing with their evenings? Well, at one point we thought the same thing, but having found ourselves (at various stages in our careers) working on/leading structural engineering projects – and thoroughly enjoying it – and being encouraged by colleagues at Atkins (who themselves are Chartered with two institutions), we were inspired to embark on this journey.

We have both developed a passion for structural engineering and the manner in which structural engineers tackle and solve problems, for example, having the ability to quickly identify the functional framing, load paths and the stability system of structures.  It is safe to say that after attending this course both of our structural engineering knowledge and understanding increased significantly!  How and why, you may ask… We wrote out a list of all the highly beneficial things we learnt (and there were many) and reviewed the pages of notes we took (and there were several)…

What did we gain from it?

Essentially, the objective of this course was to provide additional preparation in order to help increase the candidate’s chances of passing the exam. Every week we tackled different challenges faced by Chartered Structural Engineers – using past papers, worked examples, discussing case studies and lessons learnt – and experienced what it took to become a Chartered Structural Engineer. There were approximately 20 engineers from a variety of engineering disciplines (Mechanical, Civil and Structural), working in a variety of industries (Nuclear, Construction, Offshore Wind, O&G, etc.), all with an interest in structural engineering. 

We were split into groups of four/five, with the option of those more advanced – and likely to sit the exam sooner – working together. Everybody was encouraged to participate and this “welcoming community” feeling of engineers all working together towards the same goal provided the inspiration and motivation to go beyond our comfort zones and succeed.

We received first hand advice from visiting speakers, ranging from those who mark the exam papers, to company directors and university lecturers; each with a vast amount of experience; sharing their considerable knowledge and insight; and offering fantastic hints and tips.  For example:

1. Use coloured pens to clearly distinguish engineering information, e.g. use one colour to represent the structure, another colour to clearly indicate internal load paths, and another colour to show external loads.
2. Keep calculations simple and limited to key primary elements, using engineering judgement to size those of secondary importance.
3. Practice drawing freehand sketches that are neat and in proportion.
4. Become very familiar with your lever arch file: have key design pages well tagged.

The speakers conveyed the level of study and preparation needed to pass the exam, including exam techniques, such as:

1. Before the exam, practice, practice, practice past papers, and ensure sessions are done in a manner that replicates exam conditions.
2. Read all of the question – obvious, but a common mistake candidates fail to do correctly.
3. Draw out the key information.
4. Manage time well; draw up a timetable; plan well.
5. Ensure the two proposed structural solutions are sufficiently different, and can be clearly read and understood.
6. Attempt every part of the question.
7. Remain calm, don’t worry.

Invaluable resources and materials were shared by attendees and speakers alike.  Each person arrived with their own particular perspective, and the agglomeration of knowledge and understanding certainly took our learning to the next level. 

Some of the content that was shared included: completed and marked past papers that had passed; essential information to be included in the candidate’s lever arch file; sample variations to designs; sample client letters; typical design calculations; samples of exemplar drawings; and sample method statements and programmes.

However, we won’t lie, you need to put in the effort – testified by the pages upon pages of notes with the captions “must learn” or “look up” that were next to the numerous structural engineering principles discussed!  But, before we knew it, we began to notice a pattern to preparing and tackling structural engineering problems.

By the end of the course we found ourselves thinking (and sounding) like Chartered Structural Engineers, and our confidence in tackling structural engineering problems outside our comfort zone – be it bridges or piled foundations – had soared. 

Our evening group had also evolved in a community of engineers who continued to meet, even beyond the course, to tackle past papers and support each other along the way.

What are the next course dates?

The Western Counties Chartered Membership Exam Preparation Course is run during the months of February and March every year.  This year, they were able to include a general lecture on Structural Behaviour, by Dr Adam Crewe (University of Bristol), attended by over 100 people.

Oh yes… we could have been doing far more exciting things with our respective evenings after a long day’s work, but judging by our increased structural engineering knowledge and understanding, and knowing that we’re doing all that it takes to pass, we know which one we’d choose!

Alvan Herbert MEng CEng MIMechE (Senior Engineer, Atkins) and Gillian Pollard MEng CEng MICE (Senior Engineer, Atkins)


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