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Engineering People Skills

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When it comes to all things technical, conventional wisdom tells us that engineers are second to none. But it’s a different story when it comes to social skills: engineers don’t exactly have a reputation for being sociable, flexible, or even approachable. Fair or not, these widespread assumptions about engineers are being actively deconstructed by higher education institutions seeking to equip the current generation of engineering students with not only technical know-how, but social and “soft” skills as well.

What's behind the sudden push by universities to produce people-smart engineers?

"It is no longer good enough for engineers to come out of school with purely technical-level training. They need to know the business environment in which they are going to work," says Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program which instructs science and engineering students in business and entrepreneurial skills, a move echoed by UC-Berkeley. "In this fast-paced world, engineers are not isolated in their cubes anymore."

Point noted. But Stanford and Berkeley aren't the only universities tackling the issue head on, nor are they the first. In the 1990s, MIT instituted a similar practice when industry concerns about American productivity highlighted the fact that less was getting accomplished because professional engineers were being churned out of schools without the proper workplace communications skills. Such programs became increasingly popular when the accreditation body for engineering schools implemented a new rule requiring that all accredited schools provide formal instruction in communication and teamwork.

"Now, it's just everywhere," observes Barbara Masi, director of education innovation at MIT's engineering school.

Much of the voiced need for change in the demeanor of engineering professionals came from established engineering firms, consultants, and industry leaders.

Andrew Burroughs, who heads the Chicago branch of Palo Alto-based design company IDEO, affirms that, "We're looking for engineers that have a foot in both camps. A foot in the camp of being a very smart technical contributor, and a foot in the camp of being an interesting, curious person who can communicate about a lot more than just engineering and technical matters."

Of course, the necessary changes had to take place at the pre-professional level, which they did as universities redesigned their engineering curriculum to include much more collaborative and project work. What they found was that students not only learned to work well in groups, but also sharpened their technical savvy and produced better products.

"You can have an engineered object that is designed to make the world a better place, but if it can't be built and sold, it won't do any good," said James Holloway, associate dean for undergraduate education in Michigan's College of Engineering.

The collective push for a paradigm shift in the university goals and curriculum appears to have succeeded. UC Berkeley engineering dean Shankar Sastry affirms, "The days of boot camp — where we say 'Thou shalt study physics and mathematics and, oh by the way, you'll find out what's going to come out of this next year or the year after' — I think are gone."

So the next time you're in a university classroom where the professor is fielding a lively debate typical of a philosophy or political sciences course, don't be surprised if you discover you're actually in Engineering 101.
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