Conference Aims to Reshape Engineering Education

For today's engineers, communication and "soft" skills may be the keys to success

7 July 2010

High-tech services companies have surpassed manufacturers as the major employers of engineers. The services companies need engineers who not only know how to design and program but also have strong leadership and communications skills, an entrepreneurial flair, and are comfortable working on cross-cultural teams. But such skills are not being taught in most university engineering and computer science programs, whose curricula are still focused on training EEs to work in manufacturing. IEEE and IBM are trying to change that.

They began by holding an April conference, Transforming Engineering Education: Creating Interdisciplinary Skills for Complex Global Environments. Sponsored by the IEEE Foundation and IEEE Educational Activities Board, as well as IBM, the three-day event in Dublin attracted 150 representatives from academia, engineering associations, governments, and hi-tech companies from 33 countries. The program included more than 70 papers on initiatives undertaken by universities that have implemented multidisciplinary engineering programs or that have modified their curricula to include the so-called soft skills. IEEE president-elect Moshe Kam served as the program chair and 2004 IEEE president Arthur Winston was the general cochair of the conference.

“In today’s increasingly competitive environment, engineers employed in any industry have to be able to work with people, communicate with others throughout the organization, understand the marketplace and its customers, and know the ins and outs of contracts and intellectual property issues,” Winston says. “But a majority of engineering schools haven’t kept up with the changing needs of employers. However, they’ve got to change their curricula because technology changes and so have employers’ needs. IEEE’s mission is to help schools make that transition.”

IBM teamed with IEEE for the conference because it has a vested interest in helping schools update their curricula. Each year the company hires thousands of recent engineering graduates and spends millions on continuing education programs for its employees, including training on soft skills, according to Wendy Murphy, executive program manager for Service Science and Smarter Planet, a function of IBM’s corporate headquarters in the research division, located in Armonk, N.Y.

”Students often get very deep into a technical subject area but don’t learn much about business or dealing with people,” Murphy says. “This conference gave us an opportunity to work with IEEE to reach interested engineering faculty from around the world.”

As a major technology services provider, IBM looks for employees with what Murphy calls “the ‘T’ shape: deep in engineering or a major technology subject but broad across the top of the ‘T’ with people skills so they can communicate with the other constituencies and other disciplines,” she says. “It’s just not the engineer who knows everything, but the engineer who knows people who can bring something of value to the team.”

Through a series of workshops, attendees learned about the current state of engineering education, perspectives from industry representatives on the present and future work environment, and examples of university programs that have incorporated soft skills. They then broke into groups to propose ways to prepare engineering and computer science students for the workplace during the next 15 years. They discussed methods for integrating nontraditional topics into current curricula, including modifications that need to be made to university policies, government regulations, and accreditation programs.

“The idea was for the groups to propose actions aimed at a wide variety of organizations, including engineering schools, government agencies in countries that oversee educational content, and funding organizations that focus on engineering education, as well as employers and accrediting agencies,” says Charles Hickman, director of university programs for IEEE Educational Activities, in Piscataway, N.J., who helped coordinate the conference. “These groups are all stakeholders and have a role to play in accelerating the pace of these changes.”

Attendees made a list of recommendations, which among other things asked schools to:

  • Incorporate elements of management, law, and social sciences into engineering and computer science curricula.
  • Improve the communications skills of engineering and computer science majors so they can interact more effectively with nontechnical people, serve as advocates for science and technology, and help improve the image of engineering and computer science as programs of study for worthwhile careers.
  • Develop a list of desired skills and knowledge for new engineering and computer science graduates, and formulate follow-up steps to address any shortcomings that emerge.

IEEE plans to publish proceedings of the conference and post its papers, along with supplemental material, on the conference Web site. A summary of the conference is to be sent to deans, department chairs, heads of curriculum, accrediting organizations, professional associations, and funding agencies.

IEEE also plans to develop proposals with IBM on how the two can work together to help universities develop new courses.

“By working together we can be more innovative and inventive as we create solutions,” says Murphy of IBM. “The skills are needed across all industries around the world.”

Adds Winston, “The legacy of this conference will not just be the conference proceedings but also in specific actions that will show the sense of urgency and the inspiration to implement them.”

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