Journal Archive > 2002 > April

Real-world engineers

Engineering curriculum emphasizes teamwork and professional skills

Years ago, people who were interested in engineering started as tinkerers, drawn to working on gadgets and fiddling around in a basement workshop. Today, says Peter Wong, director of special initiatives in the School of Engineering, young people who go into the field may have great eye-hand coordination thanks to spending hours playing computer games, but have little experience in using tools or figuring out, say, how a clock works.

Working with machines is just one of the skills the School of Engineering is now expecting students to learn through workshops or by taking courses where engineering performance or professional skills have been integrated into the curriculum. Last year, the school instituted a program to help students become proficient in areas that alumni and professional organizations said weren't being taught in standard engineering courses. Chief among these skills are communication and teamwork.

Engineering student Roselin Osser makes a presentation to faculty member Peter Wong. © Mark Morelli

People skills
"The problem with the stereotypical engineer lies in the inability to communicate with others," says Wong. "Many of the programs we are now offering involve good teamwork skills, listening and being sensitive and thoughtful about the group as a whole. In the past, the engineer closed the door and worked in the lab on a hands-on project. Now they have to be able to walk into a marketing meeting or a company president's office and work in a professional way."

In addition to teamwork and communication, the other skills being taught involve research and leadership as well as prototyping to learn about manufacturing processes.

All students must take a course called "Introduction to Computers in Engineering" in which Steven Chapra, Louis Berger Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, teaches how computers are used in engineering. Students are required to design software, but here's where the course has been changed. Instead of just designing the software, they now have to sell their product to a venture capitalist played by Wong. First Wong explains the different types of pitches—the sales pitch, the general pitch and the technical presentation.

"Students then have to make a pitch to me, and they have five minutes to sell me on a project. Some have fantastic projects and poor selling abilities or vice versa. The pitch has to be quick, to the point, and students have to be able to differentiate their product from others. There has to be a market for it, and students have to know the product inside and out. They also have to make a power point presentation with eye-catching graphics, but the focus is more on the oral presentation," which counts for 20 percent of their grade.

In Engineering 2, a course on computer-aided design, students make a CD rack using power tools. "We want them to learn not just visually but by doing something hands on," says Wong. "The students don't design the rack; they all make the same one, working with Bob Lind at the Engineering Project Development Center."

The power of teamwork
By the sophomore year, students have to declare majors, and each engineering discipline has a course in which teamwork is embedded in the curriculum. Students do homework and take tests in teams, although they also have individual tests to make sure everyone is doing the work. In addition, they do a team-based project. For example, they might have to build a lifting device or a car. Last year, students made a catapult; one team made one that shot a golf ball 30 feet.

Student Michael Reilly sells his project to faculty member Bob Lind and engineering graduate student Brian Pardo. © Mark Morelli

During the junior year, Wayne Powell from the university library system teaches students about research techniques and strategies, and in the senior year, the focus is on leadership.

Shannon Cahill, who is majoring in civil and environmental engineering, took a course in thermodynamics with Dean Ioannis Miaoulis that integrated teamwork skills into the class work.

"We were in groups of three, and we had to pass in one homework assignment together, and we took two tests as a team," she said. "With the test, we had to strategize how we would finish on time and who would do what. We would assign two problems to each person, and we cross-checked each other if there were discrepancies."

Cahill said some teams talked through each problem and answered together.

"For me, taking the test was slower when I did it as part of a group. We had some disagreements, but we did all right. Teamwork is an important part of engineering—controlling the dynamics, making sure everyone shows up and does the work. We shared a grade on the exam and took the final on our own."

Cahill said one team member didn't show up for the exam, and her absence hurt the team at first because "we got flustered."

But, she said, "that sort of thing happens in real life. We had a taste of changing plans at the last minute."