Karen Strauss

Karen Strauss PE

Development Review Supervisor
Ada County Highway District
Boise, ID, United States
Karen Strauss
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I work for the Ada County Highway District as the Development Review Supervisor. Anyone who wants to build a new subdivision, commercial development (like a Best Buy or grocery store) or make land into buildings has to come through me and my staff, and I help review the plans. I look at all kinds of engineering plans for houses, pipes, water and sewer, ponds, roads, and help decide what will work and what won't.
BS in Civil Engineering, Environmental Emphasis, Northern Arizona University 2001. MC in Technical Communication, Boise State University, 2011.
  • I am willing to be contacted by educators for possible speaking engagements in schools or in after school programs or summer camps.
  • I am willing to serve as science fair judge or other temporary volunteer at a local school.
  • I am willing to be contacted about potential job shadowing by interested students.
  • I am willing to be interviewed by interested students via email.
Answers by Karen Strauss PE

Hi Ram,
Great question! The biggest goal I had coming out of college was to obtain my PE license. As a civil engineer, getting licensed is a huge part of our ability to function in our job. I’ve needed a license for almost every aspect of the job I’ve done… environmental (signing wetlands plans), land development (signing subdivision design plans), transportation (signing road design plans) and pavement analysis (signing department memos.) Getting that license was a big ordeal and I felt very happy and accomplished when I passed the test! Go ahead and look up the board of professional engineers in your home state (or international versions). First you become an EIT- Engineer in Training. Then you become a PE (Professional Engineer). It’s tough and rewarding!

After receiving my license, I wanted to work in several fields of engineering. I wanted to see what I could do with my knowledge! I worked in environmental, transportation, land development, public and private sector, with consultants and with the government. Since working at a state DOT, I’ve wanted to move around and learn all of the aspects of what we do- construction, materials, right-of-way, pavement analysis and design, road maintenance, safety, and a host of other things. I want to know why we do what we do and how we do it.

I also wanted to see if I liked management. In the engineering field, generally, you can go one of two directions with your license; you can become very technical on one subject and become the statewide expert, or you can manage people and work your way up in the department or workplace. I did some technical studies and enjoyed being a statewide expert in pavement management, but I found that I was feeling pigeonholed and I worried that I was too young to stay in one place doing the same thing. Now I’ve become a manager and it definitely has its challenges! I have to really work on my people skills as well as my engineering skills. I’m not sure I like it as much as being the technical expert yet, but I want to give it a fair shot.

After this? I just want to retire knowing that I’m very well rounded. I want to know how to do everything that a civil engineer does. And one of the most rewarding feelings is designing a project and seeing it built. I definitely want to do more of that. Drawing plans on paper and signing them… then sending them out to be built… then seeing your ideas come alive with concrete and rebar and asphalt and soil is one of the best feelings in the world. I think that’s my next goal… to put my stamp on the area I live and be able to drive past something and say “I designed that!”
-Karen Merrick, PE

Hi Trang,

My first inclination is always to encourage someone to follow their passion. Your email sounds like you are more inclined towards structural engineering (civil) than mechanical, so that’s likely where you should be.

Interestingly, it’s been my experience that the engineering degree opens so many doors that the specialty doesn’t matter as much as you would think. I worked in land development (building/designing subdivisions) for a number of years under an engineer who admitted his degree was in mechanical engineering and he couldn’t find work in his field, so he came over to civil. I myself got an environmental emphasis with my civil degree and now specialize in pavement management!

I haven’t heard of many hardships endured by engineers in the field. When I was the civil engineer for a project, I would walk the project with the contractor, point out any errors or changes in my design, and discuss options. I never lifted anything, drove any trucks, poured concrete, milled asphalt, or any of the construction-related activities. The engineer works much more as the supervisor, checking her design, making sure that the design elements are in place and that the water drains the right way, the building has the correct rebar and iron she ordered, and that the structure will stand per her specifications. I can’t imagine that you would be asked to actually lift any of the structures yourself; first of all, that’s a safety hazard (you’d have to have hours and hours of OSHA training to be on the job site doing that stuff), and second of all, that’s not the engineer’s job.

I’ve done 90% of my work in the office, in air conditioning, on a computer. You’d likely be designing the structures in CADD or structural design software, printing out the plans, discussing them with your boss, and then they get taken to the job site to get built. You’d then visit the job site, examining the work they’re doing, and comparing to your plans, and discussing changes the contractor wishes to make, and approving or denying the changes. No actual construction!

I’ve heard from my mechanical engineering friends that they wished they had done civil engineering because you can apply that degree to so many more things (pavement, environmental, land development, water resources, structures, bridge design, traffic, etc etc.) Of course this is coming from a civil engineer, hehehe! But I do believe it’s the “broader” degree, which if you’re having a dilemma, is the safer bet.

I have a few suggestions. Why not interview a few civil and mechanical engineers (your professors likely know a few) and ask them what their day is like? Ask them how often they go out to the field and if they have to do any kind of difficult field work. No better people to ask, than the people who do the work you think you’d like to do!

You could also contact a local civil engineering company who is constructing a building near you (they almost always have a sign on site with their name and company contact information.) You could call them up, tell them you’re struggling with your degree choice, and ask them to take you on site or discuss the project with you. Not only will this help you get answers, it shows you have initiative, which will likely make a positive impact with this company and maybe even get you an internship with them in the future?

If you have follow up questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

Warm regards,

Karen Merrick, PE

Hello Rebecca,

Have no fear! I think a lot of us struggled in Physics courses. I also worried that because I didn’t “get” all of my core classes such as Physics or Statics that I might be in the wrong profession. I had to fight very hard to earn my “c” in statics and wondered if this meant I should have majored in English.

However, I found that other engineering classes that weren’t so physics-based definitely piqued my interest and made me feel more secure that I had chosen a good profession. I enjoyed highways and traffic classes, and I also enjoyed some of my environmental coursework where I learned about anaerobic sludge digestion. These were the same classes that the A-students in Physics didn’t do so well in! I think everyone is balanced differently.

I am really glad I got my degree in civil engineering, by the way. I’ve worked in several different genres because the degree is so versatile. I’ve worked for transportation firms designing roadways and culverts. I’ve worked for land development firms designing subdivision layouts where I graded the lots for the houses and designed the water, stormwater and sewer systems. I’ve worked for an environmental firm where I did noise pollution studies and site assessments. And now I work for the Idaho Transportation Department where I’m their pavement management engineer. I had all of these opportunities because I got this degree and it gives me so many choices.

Go to your physics professor and admit you’re struggling, and see if you can get some help from him/her during office hours. A good tutor or learning lab on campus never hurt, either. Study hard and I’m sure you’ll do well. And I personally thought this degree was very well worth it.

Warm regards from another engineer that struggled mightily in Physics,


Hi Melissa, How exciting to hear that another woman is choosing the profession of civil engineering! Congratulations. It'll be a tough and challenging ride through college, but I'm sure you're more than capable, and that you'll really enjoy your classwork. As to your question regarding why more women don't choose engineering, my thinking is that it's mostly because women before them never chose it. To me, it's like why most men don't go into nursing. It's viewed as a field for the opposite sex, so most people don't even let it enter their considerations when choosing a major in college. It takes a strong, inquisitive mind to fight against these built in stereotypes and ask why CAN'T I do engineering? That's what so many of us did, and what we try to encourage other women to think. There is no job out there that we can't do- and more of us every year realize that engineering is a valid and enjoyable choice for us. I'm very happy you're looking into the profession! I really enjoy all the different things I can do with my degree. As for your senior project, there are several different ways you could get your class involved. If your interests lay in highways and traffic, you could present a video of a car crash and have the class divide up into teams to perform the calculations of how fast the car was going and if it was exceeding the speed limit. If you are more interested in structures, you could ask the class to build bridges out of certain materials and vote on whose bridge is most likely to fail under a certain amount of weight, and then take the bridges out and break them. If your interest is more in materials, you could have them design concrete mixes and calculate the slump that each concrete will have, and then take them outside, have them mix the concrete and see whose is most accurate (and if you have more time, you could always have them build concrete cylinders, cure them for 28 days, and then go to your local college and have them broken at the lab to see whose could withstand the most weight.) I hope these ideas help you, and I wish you the best of luck on your journey into engineering! -Karen Strauss