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Soft skills make engineers better

ASU co-curricular programs, industry collaborate to produce commercially competent engineers

Students work on a whiteboard.

Arizona State University co-curricular programs such as the Grand Challenges Scholars Program and the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network’s Entrepreneurial Mindset initiative regularly collaborate with industry to help prepare engineering students to have the wide range of soft and technical skills needed in today’s workforce. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

May 21, 2020

It takes more than strong technical skills to succeed in the engineering industry. It’s equally important that engineers are able to communicate, understand the big picture and make cross-disciplinary connections to solve grand challenges facing society.

Co-curricular programs in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University are helping to create the adaptable, interdisciplinary problem-solvers industry needs and providing an avenue for students to coordinate directly with industry to ensure program and industry goals are aligned.

The ASU Grand Challenges Scholars Program covers five competency areas that all engineers should strive to develop: research and creative skills, entrepreneurship skills, interdisciplinary skills, multicultural skills and learning by serving the community.

The Entrepreneurial Mindset, also known as EM, is championed by the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network, or KEEN, and emphasizes curiosity, connections and creating value through engineering.

Amy Trowbridge, director of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, and KEEN staff members Kristen Peña, a senior program coordinator, and Layla Reitmeier, a senior project manager of the ASU Kern Grant, regularly coordinate with industry to ensure these initiatives are cultivating relevant skills and experiences that prepare students to be valuable professionals from their first day on the job.

ASU aligns goals with industry to prepare engineers for a new world

Heather Flores, an exterior lighting systems manager at Ford, served as a panel moderator at the Hiring Top Talent for Industry 4.0: Grand Challenges Scholars Program workshop hosted early this semester. She says industry is feeling an acute shortage of new engineering talent with the right skills for success.

“The pace of change in industry is such that mid-career engineers do not have the skill set required,” Flores said. “If industry continues to share trends, then academia can also impact mindsets so that the next generation of engineers are continuous-learning problem-solvers.”

She says curricula often emphasizes multidisciplinary and entrepreneurial skills, but other skill gaps don’t often appear until engineers are fully engaged in the workforce.

“(Engineers) need the ability to adapt their communication style and be flexible with approaches — data, factual, visual and emotional — since their future work teams may not operate under the same motivational principles,” Flores said, noting that programs like the Grand Challenges Scholars Program and KEEN’s EM initiative are laying the right foundations.

“Engineering students are practicing and learning to work in ways that will mimic the real future workplace,” Flores said. “They’re building the neural pathways, muscle memory and resilience they will need.”

Another common concern identified by industry is that academia is slow to adapt to a changing industry landscape.

“One of the beautiful things about co-curricular programs like GCSP is that its goals and objectives are much more easily adjusted compared to a traditional 16-week ABET-accredited course,” Peña said. “GCSP and other EM-related programming are the versatile mechanisms for academic change that industry is looking for.”

Larry Davidoff, who works in advanced programs and business development at the Boeing Company, attended the Grand Challenges Scholars Program industry workshop. He notes students are entering a world of professional engineering that looks very different from the landscape traditional engineering education prepares students for.

“The way engineering is performed in industry today is much different than in the past,” Davidoff said. “Engineering students are entering a workforce that demands a combination of technical competency, rapid pace of execution, soft skills and effective project execution.”

To be successful, Davidoff identifies capabilities students should learn beyond technical skills, especially through industry-relevant, project-based experiences. These include engineering management, agile development, communication, customer engagement and the business of engineering.

A speaker addresses a gathering of industry professionals and ASU co-curricular program leaders.

Arizona State University Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network and Grand Challenges Scholars Program representatives and alumni met with industry professionals during the spring semester to align goals and better prepare engineering students for rapidly evolving industry needs. Photo courtesy of Kristen Peña

Soft skills enhance technical skills  

Both the Grand Challenges Scholars Program and KEEN emphasize the development of a wide variety of soft skills through hands-on projects that reflect real-world engineering challenges and stakeholder needs  — experiences all engineering students should pursue.

Quintessential soft skills like communication and being able to work on teams with diverse backgrounds and knowledge are commonly practiced through the courses and projects students complete as part of scholars program and EM.

Reitmeier adds that communication skills also lead to strong storytelling ability. And while storytelling and engineering aren’t often seen as complementary skills, if engineers can tell the story of a problem, its solutions and results, they can demonstrate their skills within industry settings and explain the value of their solutions to multidisciplinary teams and stakeholders.

These programs also teach uncommon soft skills. Reitmeier says EM fosters a sense of wonder and a spirit of curiosity, which are important attributes for any engineer to have.

Being curious orients students to ask meaningful questions and make valuable connections — such as how individuals in different fields of research can interact to create a solution, how past discoveries can impact the future, and more.

“Students in GCSP spend their undergraduate career connecting the five competencies not only together and to themselves, but to their education,” Peña said. “And they will continue to make such connections in their work in industry.”

Shaun Wootten graduated with bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry, bioengineering and biomedical engineering and as a Grand Challenges Scholar in spring 2017. Now Wootten directs the research and development at Phoenix-based startup Aesthetics BioMedical Inc. He says learning EM through the scholars program and other ASU experiences sparked his interest in the business side of engineering.

“This mindset made me push the envelope and start applying theory that I learned in class into the real world,” said Wootten, who was also drawn to minor in business from this experience.

Wootten, who also attended the Grand Challenges Scholars Program industry workshop, now promotes the program as an alumnus and showcases what Grand Challenges Scholars can do. His interdisciplinary experiences developed his desire to make meaningful connections between engineering and business. He says the skills he developed through the program landed him his job with Aesthetics BioMedical, Inc. where he started the company’s R&D department.

Additionally, ASU students learn that engineering doesn’t happen in a vacuum. They are trained to consider the big picture and how their work can add value to people’s lives.

“They aren’t engineering something just because it’s cool, but because it impacts people and they have identified a need or gap in the marketplace,” Peña said. “That identification and focus on a valuable product allows them to create something sustainable.”

Students should also learn to leave their comfort zones, take calculated risks, fail and grow through failures.

Raquel Camarena graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering as a Grand Challenges Scholar in spring 2017. The research Camarena conducted with the scholars program contributed to her honors thesis and prompted her to pursue a master’s degree in industrial engineering through ASU's 4+1 accelerated master’s degree program. The courses she took to learn the business and entrepreneurial side of engineering taught her to think in a different way than her traditional engineering courses had conditioned her to approach problems.

“I had to learn to be uncomfortable and be vulnerable to lean on nonengineering students to better understand the key drivers of starting a business, building a customer base, driving revenue and sustaining a business,” said Camarena, who also earned a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certificate.

Camarena is now an industrial engineer at Raytheon Technologies, and she can speak and understand the language of business as well as engineering — such as the key commercial metrics of bookings, net sales, operating income and free cash flow, which she learned in classes she took because of Grand Challenges Scholars Program.

“My positions I have held at Raytheon Technologies rely on increasing and decreasing these metrics by implementing continuous improvement projects to drive down unnecessary cost and by capturing new business to increase revenue,” Camarena said.

Being part of the dialogue to identify gaps between industry and education gave Camarena a new perspective on the program and how the two sides can collaborate to bridge those gaps. As a board member of the ASU Engineering alumni chapter, she strives to stay engaged with engineering students like those in scholars program.

Many engineering students find the additional skills they learn through programs like Grand Challenges Scholars and the EM initiative give them advantages in today’s industry. All students should find ways to augment their skills to be successful.

“Engineering is about working in a team, communicating effectively and thinking broadly about the societal, economic, political and environmental impacts of what you create,” Peña said. “The combination of technical skills with this mindset creates an engineer who will be able to solve global problems and be a leader of tomorrow.”

Interviews conducted by Blare Media contributed to this article.

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