In today’s global economy, well-rounded engineers are in high demand. Whether you call it leadership development, professional skills, or interdisciplinary understanding, engineering graduates must be technically proficient and simultaneously able to work with diverse people and problems.
The call for broadly skilled engineers is nothing new. A decade ago, a report by the National Academy of Engineering called The Engineer of 2020 stated that future practitioners must exhibit strong fundamentals in problem solving in addition to interdisciplinary skills such as creativity, communication, and business management.
More recently, a 2013 workshop report by the American Society for Engineering Education showed that communication, an understanding of engineering systems, critical thinking, and business acumen were among the professional traits deemed most necessary for engineering undergraduates, alongside the obvious strong math and science skills.
“Today’s engineer needs to recognize the big picture of business, why they are doing what they are doing, and what they hope to get out of it,” said Jake VanderZanden (’87 B.S. Mechanical Engineering), vice president of corporate development for DWFritz Automation. “On top of that, they must have extremely good people and team skills.” VanderZanden is an impassioned mentor who teaches professional development skills as a guest lecturer in the colleges of Business and Engineering. He believes that understanding the larger purpose of a job enables engineers to think critically, ask the right questions, and make sound decisions.
“Every engineer and every employee needs to understand the context of their work. Otherwise, they are simply executing without stepping back and applying leadership skills,” he said.
Experts in engineering education agree. Milo Koretsky, a professor in the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering, studies innovative curricular design and engineering education. He argues that both technical and professional skills are essential for engineers, but that the context in which these skills are developed influences how they are assimilated and put to use.
“In the learning sciences literature, what’s emerging is the notion that when we learn a new concept, how that concept gets activated depends on the learning context,” he said. Koretsky points out that students engage differently when they solve a textbook problem versus when they have to use the same concept in a real-world application, such as during an internship or lab experience. Learning environments where decisions have consequences encourage students to engage in problem solving, negotiation, communication, and even conflict management.
One way Koretsky is creating richer learning contexts is through technology-based learning systems. For example, the Virtual Chemical Vapor Deposition Laboratory lets students practice complex tasks common to professional engineers in the microelectronics industry, in much the same way a flight simulator trains pilots. In addition to technical experiments, students also need to use communication skills to collaborate with teammates and a lab supervisor.
“We’ve been very intentional in our curricular design in identifying the knowledge and skills that our students need, and in creating the types of tasks and environments that resemble professional practice,” he said.
The Oregon State College of Engineering is also being intentional in creating meaningful contexts to better prepare students for the new economy. Scott Paja, the college’s new career and leadership development coordinator, is preparing to launch an Engineering Leadership Academy that will supplement world-class engineering courses with opportunities for students to enhance nontechnical skills that are critical to their success as future professionals.
“Leadership is learned. We just have to structure the right kind of opportunities so that students can intentionally develop these skills before they graduate,” Paja said. “The question is, how do you capture and document learning that also happens outside of the traditional classroom setting?”
In answering that question, Paja is developing a system to track relevant leadership experiences throughout a student’s enrollment. These experiences could include guest lectures, industry networking events, internships, co-ops, and even classes. He envisions interactive software where students submit reflections and receive updates on their status toward completing the academy’s requirements.
“Students could go to an event in Portland, say, where they talk with potential employers. Then from the comfort of their mobile device, they could submit a quick write-up on the experience and implications for their professional and leadership development,” he said. The overarching goal, said Paja, is to create a culture of evidence that formally documents a student’s professional development. “By making thinking explicit, it encourages students to connect lessons in leadership to both their current and future contexts,” he said. To ensure alignment between industry needs and the outcomes of the academy, Paja is organizing an advisory board and collaborating with engineering professionals. So far, leaders from across the Pacific Northwest have signed on to the board, including VanderZanden.
“I’m very passionate about student development, period, so I wanted to get involved,” VanderZanden said. “I want to give back to OSU so young engineers are aware of all the things they are going to encounter. If they can fast-track these skills as students, then they will be a decade ahead of where I was.”
Thomas Teramura (’83 B.S. Mechanical Engineering), the vice president of technology and innovations for PCC Structurals, also joined the academy’s advisory board. He stresses the importance of educating students to become not just good engineers, but good leaders. “The Engineering Leadership Academy is a great opportunity to provide a broader spectrum of thinking and to plant a seed so graduates can sense what’s beyond just the technical side of engineering,” he said. “Not only do we want our college graduates to be successful engineers in their fields, but we want them to become our future leaders.”
— Abby P. Metzger