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Educating tomorrow's engineering leaders

Ruth GrahamE-mail The Corresponding Author, Independent consultant

Available online 25 September 2009.

What do we really mean by ‘engineering leadership’, how can it be developed and nurtured?

A quick glance at the mission statements of engineering schools across the world makes clear that many are committed to educating the future leaders of the engineering profession. But while widely regarded as a core goal of engineering education, little attention has historically been paid to what ‘engineering leadership’ means and how it can be nurtured. As part of the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, I have had a chance to explore these questions. Liaising with experts in engineering schools across the world, I conducted a short review to assess the status of engineering leadership education and to identify best international practice. While not an exhaustive study, interesting issues emerge.

The first is that engineering leadership education is a very new and under-resourced field. Most programs have been developed in the last 5 years and are managed on very small budgets and project teams, often operating outside the formal curriculum. As with many other educational initiatives, energy and inspiration often come from high-profile and passionate champions – and they consistently report how hard it is to find suitably-qualified faculty staff to design and deliver the programs. Their experience reveals the dearth of resources and expertise currently available to engineering schools wishing to establish leadership programs. In this emerging field, formal networks and centres of excellence are only just emerging.

A second theme concerned international differences in the understanding of ‘leadership education’. It is a term readily embraced in the US, and features prominently in many engineering undergraduate programs. Outside the US, engineering educators are often uncomfortable with the notion of ‘leadership education’ as an endeavour in its own right. It is seen to imply selecting and coaching a student elite – an approach which they feel runs counter to their educational culture of inclusiveness and equality.

However, while not labelled as engineering leadership, there are a large number of successful programs operating outside the US particularly in Australia and Europe that subscribe to student learning outcomes almost identical to those found in US engineering leadership programs. Although such programs do not explicitly refer to a ‘leadership’ agenda, many common themes are still apparent. For example, a strong focus on ‘student empowerment in their own engineering professional development’ clearly emerged, with many programs being partially or almost fully managed and delivered by the students themselves. Where the programs explicitly targeting ‘leadership’ are distinct, however, is in their underpinning aims, which are often focussed on developing leaders able to operate effectively inside and outside the engineering profession or on improving the global competitiveness of their country.

Delving more deeply into the educational philosophy of the programs, other common features emerged. A consistent theme in many of the programs is a dual emphasis on instilling global awareness and self-awareness. While program providers recognise they still have some way to go, they are keen to see their programs equipping students for the global contexts of engineering practice in the 21st century, for example by developing skills to operate in international and multi-disciplinary teams and to appreciate national and cultural differences in approaches to engineering problems. Across countries and across continents, program leaders also underlined how leadership requires the capacity for self insight and reflection, and how, in consequence, they are seeking to develop programs that build students' awareness of their own personal skill set and give them the ability to analyse its impact on their leadership style. Among the most highly-regarded are those which combine the ‘global’ and ‘reflective’ dimensions within a broader educational program. One example is the thoughtfully designed Engineering Leadership Development Minor (ELDM) at Penn State University.

Looking to the future, it is clear that educating tomorrow's leaders will become an increasingly prominent part of engineering programs. While there are significant national and cultural differences in how the term ‘leadership’ is understood, the review points to a deeper consensus about the knowledge and skills that tomorrow's leaders will require. In recent years, the profile and knowledge-base for the related fields of ‘global engineering education’ and ‘entrepreneurship engineering education’ have grown considerably, and partnerships across these communities will be an important factor in the future development of excellence in engineering leadership education. For its part, this emerging field is set to bring new educational ideas, resources and approaches to benefit all engineering students. In particular, if adequately resourced and institutionally supported, we can expect engineering leadership education to ‘lead by example’, providing models from which engineering education as a whole can learn. We can expect it to develop curricula which provide students with a deeper understanding of the national and global impacts of engineering decisions and a greater understanding of their own individual approach to engineering problems, great and small.

 A summary report of this review entitled Engineering Leadership Education: a Snapshot Review of International Good Practice, will be published by the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program in Autumn 2009. For further details, please contact Bruce Mendelsohn at brucem@MIT.EDU.

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Materials Today
Volume 12, Issue 9, September 2009, Page 6

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