Building better engineers
With industry executives saying recent engineering graduates lack "softer" skills needed to thrive in the workplace, the College of Engineering has debuted a sequence of four classes to teach many of the essential non-technical skills needed to become a successful engineer.
Industry executives, however, are saying that while recent engineering graduates have the technical knowledge and experience to do the work, they often don’t have those “softer” skills needed to thrive in the workplace.
UNL’s College of Engineering has begun to address that situation in the fall semester with the debut of a sequence of four classes that will teach students many of the non-engineering skills they need to become successful engineers.
Those skills have long been popular buzzwords in the workplace – such as self-awareness, teamwork, leadership and entrepreneurship. Jones said those handles narrow the focus too much.
“When Dean (Tim) Wei and I were talking about this, we had a list of about 300 things we felt were important, so we called it ‘Leadership 300.’ That was confusing because everyone thought it was a 300-level class,” said David Jones, associate dean of undergraduate programs. “Now we call it the essential non-technical skills. That sounds rudimentary and basic, and it is, but that’s intentional.”
The sequence has become necessary, Jones said, to help Nebraska Engineering deliver on its mission to give back to the state and the world by producing well-rounded engineers.
“Undergraduate students are what we deliver to society and, quite candidly, if all we do is keep our talents, skills and gifts in academia, then we fail society,” Jones said. “The students of today are so talented academically, much more than I ever was. They come to college thinking they know how to do these things, but when they try to put it into practice there’s really a gap between what they know and what they think they know.
“It’s sort of like they are an overpowered car with bad tires: They can’t get the traction they need to make the progress they want to make. These courses are aiming to leverage that academic horsepower and utilize it in a way that they can actually make progress on being the engineers they want to be and solve the problems that we, as a society, need to have them solve.”
The first class – a freshman-level course called Engineering 100 – is designed to help students focus on their personal goals and values, as well as professional and personal objectives.
“We want them to be able to lead themselves because the hardest person in the world to lead is yourself,” Jones said.
To accomplish that, the college hired Carmen Zafft as a lecturer to teach Interpersonal Skills for Leadership. A sister course to ALEC 102, which has been offered for more than 40 years, the curriculum focuses on creating the foundations for leadership through deeper self-examination.
Zafft, associate professor of practice in agricultural leadership, education and communication, is teaching two sections and oversees 12 lab sections. She said her goal isn’t to produce successful engineers, but rather to develop students who can become successful people.
“Leaders are not born, they are made, and everyone has the potential to lead,” Zafft said. “My class isn’t too concerned about what they (students) do professionally. That’s the other classes in this curriculum. That’s their focus. Let’s just first figure out who you are and how you can best communicate and how that’s going to influence you the rest of your time here.”
On this path to self-awareness, students must participate in service-learning projects, write two journals about their experiences and, for the final, create their own personal leadership philosophy. Through this, Zafft said, students not only come to realize their own goals but become better students by finding a path to achieving their goals, even if that doesn’t include becoming an engineer.
“What’s going really well is having a class that they perceive deals with real-life issues. They can be a little disconnected with calculus, chemistry or physics because those tend to be very analytical and quantitative, and they have to get through that to progress toward their degree,” Zafft said. “This class becomes a place where they’re able to let their guard down and be themselves – be honest about the good and bad about what’s going on in their lives and their experiences on campus.”
Jones said the college plans to offer expanded support based on the goals, values and objectives identified by each student.
“That is translated to our advisers, so they are better able to interact with students in impactful ways,” Jones said. “We envision it more as a coaching scenario – these are your goals, how are you going to accomplish them? – to get students to the right cocurricular and extracurricular activities, including but not limited to student organizations, research experience, internships and co-ops.”
And as it is with most new classes, Zafft said, the teacher and the administration are learning how this class needs to be tweaked to better address the students’ needs, too.
“One thing that, maybe, isn’t going as well but speaks to why we need to have this course is that I wasn’t aware of the real needs of first-year students and, often, the lack of preparation for college,” Zafft said. “This class is giving us an environment where we’re having all these freshmen taking the same course and we can really get a larger picture of the gaps that can contribute to a student not progressing or matriculating through the program.
The sophomore-level course, Engineering 200, is about functioning within the framework of a team. The junior-level course, Engineering 320, builds on teamwork skills to teach students how to be leaders.
Karen Stelling, a 1987 UNL mechanical engineering graduate and a former vice president of Burns & McDonnell’s aviation and facilities division in Kansas City, Missouri, was hired to help develop the two middle classes in this sequence.
Being a professional engineer for 25 years, Stelling said, she could understand the industry as a whole calling for graduating engineers to be better prepared for real-world working environments.
“Based on my experiences, even though you hear students need to learn how to leader, what we also heard was that first they need to learn how to be good team members,” Stelling said. “Very often we expect people to know how to lead or be good team members, but we don’t teach them how to do it. We may assign them to a team, but we don’t help them work through that.
“To me, the logic was, if the freshman course is self-awareness, the next logical step is learning teamwork skills, then the next logical step is the leadership, project management, ethics piece and then the capstone.”
After teaching a senior ethics course last year, Stelling is now immersed in this curriculum. She teaches sections of Engineering 200 in Lincoln and Omaha and is preparing for the debut of the junior-level class.
In the sophomore class, students learn about how to function in teams by regularly working as teams.
“It’s easy to spend a class lecturing, but it’s a lot more difficult to come up with meaningful team-based activities to get the ideas to stick,” Stelling said. “I have had a strong focus on trying to have at least one team-based activity, if not more, every class period to give them the opportunity to practice.”
The other topics addressed include workplace expectations and learning how to work within the frameworks of sustainability and etiquette, both in the U.S. and abroad.
But, Stelling said, one of the most important skills being taught is how to deal with conflict and adverse situations.
“We go through the dysfunctions of a team and what those norms are, and we also go through crucial conversations,” Stelling said. “One of my favorite things is looking at how to have uncomfortable conversations in a constructive way, rather than avoiding them. The chronic problems in organizations happen when those conversations aren’t happening, and you can have a great deal of influence if you can handle that well.”
The junior-level course, which will be offered for the first time in the fall of 2015, will focus on leadership, management and ethics. Stelling said many engineering graduates, regardless of what school they are from, are not equipped for those demands in the workplace.
So, in addition to learning the basics of scheduling, estimating, budgeting and contracts, students will also look at risk management and ethical challenges.
>“We’ll be going through case studies to help them see that every day there are ethical challenges you may not think you are touched by. Every day there are small challenges, and in engineering, sometimes there can be some really big ones. When deadlines are tough and when you’re trying to get things done and the budget is tight, there can be some unexpected challenges. How do you respond?”
The key to the middle courses, Stelling said, is to reinforce to students that they are “active players” in their education and the rest of their lives.
“I talk with them about being academically proficient, professionally prepared, and personally engaged. They are thinking about they need to be doing and what they need to be putting into place now,” Stelling said. “You don’t want to become a senior and realize you should have done something, and now your opportunity to get a position is severely limited because you never had an internship or because you never had leadership experience. They need to do some real introspection because we can only do so much. We want to help them to set the goals and become engaged and set up for success.”
Finally, the senior-level capstone course, Jones said, gives students “the venue to actually exercise all of what they’ve learned throughout their college careers.”
The next steps taken by the college in this curriculum, Jones said, will be revamping the capstone course and likely creating a certificate program to recognize students who have taken all four courses.
This sequence of classes, Jones said, is going to have an impact not only on the students, but also “raises the bar” on the college as a whole.
“It gives us a chance on the engineering side to raise the bar, to produce more well-rounded and better engineers,” Jones said. “Our faculty should be excited and buy into this because as this group progresses through the curriculum, they’re going to be better students in the classroom. We can ask more of them if we prepare them better, not only technically but as people.”