“We see a big difference between those of us who have taken the class compared to those who didn’t. We’re more comfortable with giving and receiving feedback and sharing leadership within our teams.”
– Austin Wells, Sophomore, Lyle School of Engineering, Southern Methodist University
When faculty at Southern Methodist University’s Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering contemplated adding leadership training to their intensive first-year engineering design course, they were concerned.
The course was already challenging, requiring small groups of young engineering and computer science majors to design and build a robot over the course of a semester. Though leadership training might help students handle the inevitable conflicts that come with group projects, wouldn’t it also be a distraction, taking time away from the core technical education?
“What we discovered was that it actually seemed to accelerate the technical side because the students were more functional on the interpersonal side,” says Mark Fontenot, a computer science and engineering professor and lead faculty member for the course.
Lyle School faculty and staff, working with the Center for Creative Leadership, figured out how to integrate leadership development concepts — interpersonal communications, team dynamics and other critical topics — into the class.
Student teams completed their projects incrementally and met with professors after each stage to review their work. Following each review, faculty from CCL and the Lyle School’s own Hart Center for Engineering Leadership facilitated mini-sessions for each team to help students understand how they were working together — or not — and what they could do about it. Students used insights from these sessions to improve their performance during the next stage.
The class is one example of the way the Lyle School is embedding leadership education throughout the engineering curriculum. Sophomore Austin Wells observed, “You don’t realize the impact of this class until you’ve had time to reflect on it … for example, my friends and I are applying these concepts in other project-based classes, too. We see a big difference between those of us who have taken the class compared to those who didn’t. We’re more comfortable with giving and receiving feedback and sharing leadership within our teams.”
The emphasis on leadership is a key part of the school’s strategic plan, which calls for producing engineers and computer scientists who have both the technical and soft skills to lead teams, solve tough problems and make a difference in the world. In other words, the school wants to produce leaders.
Not incidentally, that focus is also likely to produce engineers who will graduate with a competitive advantage in the job market and who’ll contribute significantly to creating solutions to our societal challenges.
“Why wait until you’ve graduated and you’re three years out before you start realizing these different pieces,” says Dean Marc P. Christensen. “If we can get our students to be reflective and purposeful now, that will accelerate them and give them an advantage.”
The Lyle School has made a major commitment to the field of engineering leadership — specifically, leadership for all. The Hart Center for Engineering Leadership, created just a few years ago, is one of just a handful of such growing centers in college engineering programs across the U.S. All take different approaches, but the Hart Center is working to develop ALL engineers with technical and leadership proficiency, with the rationale, “Can you really identify who will end up in a leadership role and don’t they all need these skills?”
The approach used in the first-year design class reflects a vision “that leadership not be something that’s housed in a few electives that students can take or not; it’s too important,” says John Kiser, the Hart Center’s executive director and a key architect of the school’s focus on leadership.
“The example of first-year design is a curriculum-based place that turns out to be perfectly suited to watch leadership happen and help it develop,” he says.
The Hart Center has developed content to help teach ethics, is matching students with mentors in the private sector and finding other ways to make leadership integral to the engineering experience at Southern Methodist University.
The school chose to work with CCL because it wanted proven and cutting-edge leadership development models and practices that have defined CCL’s global research and reputation. They also wanted a partner that would work with them to adapt those techniques and tools to college students, says Kathy Hubbard, Hart Center director.
The surprising win-win in the engineering design class — leadership skills aren’t a distractor; they’re an enhancer of technical and team performance. This illustrates why providing leadership development to student engineers could be so powerful in the long run.