Newest Department Makes Engineers for the 21st Century
NADIA M. WHITEHEAD | May 15, 2015 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
In January, the University launched the Department of Engineering Education and Leadership, which will focus on creating engineers for the 21st century. Photo courtesy of E-Lead.
When Scott Starks, Ph.D., was invited to participate in an innovative new department at The University of Texas at El Paso, he accepted the challenge.
"Making the decision to join a new department didn't come easily," said Starks, who had been a faculty member in electrical engineering at UTEP for more than 25 years.
Despite his dedication to electrical engineering, Starks is enthusiastic about being a member of the University's latest academic unit — the Department of Engineering Education and Leadership (EEL).
EEL, which was introduced to UTEP in January 2015, will focus on creating engineers for the 21st century. According to Starks, that involves broadening the skill sets of students to create highly sought after, multidisciplinary graduates.
"Throughout my career as an engineering educator, which includes appointments at several other institutions, I have heard nothing but praise from employers about the technical and analytical preparedness of engineering graduates," he explained. "However, employers have often recommended that students receive more opportunities to develop their professional skills. By professional skills, they mean everyday skills, such as interpersonal communications, teamwork and leadership, that allow a new hire to perform well on the job and to integrate into projects."
To tackle the issue, UTEP College of Engineering Dean Richard Schoephoerster, Ph.D., and Professor Roger V. Gonzalez, Ph.D., spearheaded the creation of a B.S. in Engineering Leadership (E-Lead) degree in fall 2014. A department dedicated to building leadership skills soon followed.
Gonzalez, who has a strong interest in building student leadership skills, now serves as the inaugural chair of EEL.
"This is UTEP's latest and most innovative department," Gonzalez said. "We want to redefine engineering education to create the engineers that will carry us into the next century — that means teaching students more than just technical skills and teaching educators how to make leaders."
E-Lead, the nation's first engineering leadership bachelor's degree, will focus on building up undergraduates. While a technical engineering education will remain key, the program will focus on teaching engineers business, communication, leadership and entrepreneurial skills. The curriculum is intended to capture the interest and imagination of talented, young students who are looking to turn their ideas into reality.
The EEL department will also house a degree for graduate students. The M.S. in engineering with a concentration in engineering education and leadership will officially kick off in fall 2015 to train emerging engineering educators on how to train next-generation engineers.
"The master's concentration is designed for those who wish to pursue studies of how engineering and leadership is best taught, learned and practiced throughout the entire educational system," said Peter Golding, Ph.D., a professor in EEL.
Students who graduate with the master's degree will be prepared to teach secondary engineering courses, play leadership roles in schools, lead professional development efforts in school communities and develop measures to maintain ongoing success in engineering education.
Hugo Gomez was one of the first graduate students to test out the engineering education curriculum as it was being developed. He earned an M.S. in engineering in 2011.
"There's a lack of engineers in the U.S., so it's really important that we find a way to attract more students; a good way to do it is through quality engineering education," said Gomez, who now works as an instructional technologist at UTEP and teaches an engineering foundations course.
Today, Gomez tries to instill leadership and communication skills in his first-year UTEP students by pushing them to their limits and getting them out of their comfort zones.
"We need to give students the opportunity to express themselves at the early stages of learning," he explained. "I didn't have to do class presentations until my senior year of college, but here I'm getting them to present projects, communicate and defend their ideas in their very first class."
While these nerve-wracking classroom assignments are difficult, they start sprouting a young engineer's confidence sooner than later.
Golding thinks these teaching practices are absolutely necessary to build the next generation of engineers.
"Today's engineering graduates will solve tomorrow's problems in a world that is advancing faster and facing more critical challenges than ever before," he said. "This situation creates significant demand for engineering education to rapidly evolve in order to effectively prepare a diverse community of engineers for these challenges."
In 2008, the National Academy of Engineers identified 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st century. These complex yet achievable goals were made to improve national and international health, security, sustainability and quality of life in the next century. They include making solar energy economical, providing worldwide access to clean water and engineering better medicines.
The catch is that these issues require individuals with interdisciplinary skills, not just engineering.
"Students often don't get enough opportunities to expand their horizons beyond their majors to develop their abilities to address these grand problems," Starks said. "So our dean and Dr. Gonzalez got together and created an engineering leadership department that will produce graduates that can work in the multidisciplinary arena."
In March, Schoephoerster and 121 other engineering leaders from across the U.S. signed a commitment letter to President Barack Obama stating their universities would train specialized engineers to address the 14 Grand Challenges of the 21st century.
By signing the pledge, UTEP has agreed to graduate a minimum of 20 highly skilled engineering students each year that are prepared to lead the way in solving the large-scale problems.
It's no doubt that many of them will come from the EEL Department.