August 20, 2007

Publication honors engineering faculty members

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. — A leading engineering publication has selected an article co-penned by two Southern Illinois University Carbondale faculty members for its best-paper award.

The editorial board of Leadership and Management in Engineering, a journal of the American Society of Civil Engineers, honored Professor and Distinguished Teacher Sanjeev Kumar and Associate Professor J. Kent Hsiao for their article, "Engineers Learn 'Soft Skills the Hard Way:' Planting a Seed of Leadership in Engineering Classes." Both men work in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering at SIUC.

The American Society of Civil Engineers is the flagship organization for civil engineers.

The article, published in January, emphasizes the need for engineers to obtain so-called "soft skills" in addition to the required technical skills an engineer must master. Such skills include the ability to lead a team, communicate effectively and solve real-world problems.

Kumar, who came to SIUC in 1998, said he learned the need for such skills as a practicing engineer.

"In 11 years of professional practice, that's what I found – we don't learn those leadership and management skills during our training," Kumar said. "I had to learn it in practice, the hard way. And that's the same thing I saw when I first came to SIUC."

In the article, Kumar and Hsiao described how they took their private sector experience and used it to modify several existing engineering courses and created others to emphasize students learning such skills. One such course, "Geotechnical Engineering in Professional Practice," taught both technical and soft skills to graduate and undergraduate students at SIUC to better prepare them for life as an engineer. Kumar first taught the course in fall 2000.

During the course, students work in groups, write reports and give presentations and proposals, similar to those conducted by practicing engineers. The instructor serves as a resource, coaching students but allowing them to work out details and solutions on their own.

"What we do in that course is just professional practice," Kumar said. "We don't talk about development of equations, but important technical details relative to the project being designed."

The engineering projects they use are from the real world, often borrowed from a local engineering company's ongoing projects.

Kumar and Hsiao report students give the course high marks, and the faculty members argue that more engineering courses should be modified to incorporate developing such soft skills, along with technical skills. Many graduates have told Kumar the course was directly responsible for getting their careers started.

"That's the real success story for me," he said. "Lots of students have even said, 'Why do we only have one course like that?' I think it gives them lots of confidence when they go out looking for jobs after they graduate."