Universities do an outstanding job of teaching the technical skills to produce great engineers, but successful graduates today also need good written and oral communications, teamwork, critical thinking, innovation and entrepreneurial skills.1 But how can a student obtain these additional skills while coping with a demanding course of study? One way is to intern at a company, but not all can take advantage of that opportunity. Another way is to have contact with practicing engineers during their work on school projects.
After several years of personal involvement with student projects, it became apparent that projects involving guidance from an experienced professional had higher completion rates and possessed the qualities of a more finished or polished product by the end of the semester. Students that experienced this guidance were excited about what they accomplished and it was apparent that they learned a great deal. This observation led to the concept of the Engineer in Residence Program (EiR), an innovative new program that provides a window into the real world of engineering by bringing experienced professionals into labs to work alongside students.
Last fall, Colorado State University’s Electrical and Computer engineering (ECE) department teamed up with the IEEE High Plains Section to launch an Engineer in Residence (EiR) program. Designed to help students develop professional skills and learn firsthand how those skills relate to the workplace, the program is attracting seasoned engineers from a range of companies and areas of technical expertise. With a dedicated space of their own inside the ECE projects lab, EiR volunteers devote many hours each week to helping students overcome technical challenges, navigate their careers, and gain insights into life after CSU.
Emphasis was placed on finding engineers who could easily relate to students, and who possessed a wide range of technical expertise while maintaining a good mix of gender and ethnicities. During our first semester, 15 engineers were recruited; by the second semester, the group had grown to 23. Although predominately electrical engineers, the group also included mechanical engineers, optics designers, physicists and one patent examiner. Many of the volunteers were worried that they did not have the up-to-date technical knowledge they thought the students would demand. But the vast majority of questions from students are about practical aspects of engineering, life experiences, and what is like working in a company. When a question could not be answered by the EiR volunteers, we quickly polled the IEEE membership. From the more than 900 members in Northern Colorado, we always found someone willing to help.
Our first semester started slowly—some volunteers had intermittent contact with students throughout the weeks. We did a quick survey of more than 300 students and discovered that awareness of our new program was very low, but also that the students who did have contact with EiR engineers were highly enthusiastic about the interaction. Recognizing the need for a marketing blitz, we responded with presentations about the program to engineering classes, and designed a set of humorous posters that were displayed in the engineering building hallways. We also statistically analyzed the door openings of the electronic access to the ECE projects lab, and then adjusted the schedules of our volunteers to coincide with when the most students were entering the lab. The reaction was immediate with EiR/student contact increasing from 21% to above 60%. Since then, student contact continues to grow and their reactions to our EiR volunteers remain outstanding.
“While our education gives us the tools we need to figure out engineering problems, we appreciate the perspectives and advice of the EiR volunteers,” said Erin Karasz, a senior electrical engineering student. “They have gained more experience and wisdom than we could possibly have, and they help us see the big picture.”2
Karasz is one of five students working on a snowflake sensing system with the goal of creating more accurate winter weather predictions. Karasz and her team reached out to EiR volunteers for general project advice and feedback on current technologies used in the industry.
Electrical engineering students Andrew Sullivan and Darrin Minnard have also capitalized on the EiR program. Sullivan and Minnard contacted EiR volunteers Sam Babb, a retired engineer from Hewlett-Packard, and Scot Heath, director of engineering for Enabled Energy, for advice about the high-voltage electric system in their mini, Indy-style electric car project.
“The EiR volunteers are an absolute wealth of knowledge,” Sullivan said, “and they know about all kinds of systems – not just electrical, but also mechanical.” Minnard added: “Sam and Scot saved us untold amounts of time by showing us how our problem is addressed in industry, which allowed us to simplify our design.” He laughed, “As a bonus, they are hilarious and fun to be around.”
Though still in the pilot phase, the EiR program is gaining momentum. In addition to preparing students for the challenges of professional life, the program allows industry partners to give back to the community, recruit promising graduates, and experience the excitement of campus. EiR volunteers go back to their everyday jobs refreshed and enthusiastic about what they have accomplished with the students. You could not ask for a better break from the daily grind.
The program also presents IEEE in a very favorable light. IEEE is not just an organization that provides funding for engineering contests, conferences or standards, but rather an organization that adds value to the education of our next generation of technologists. Our Section’s membership of students is at an all time high, and we are hoping that we can convert those students to regular members after they graduate. To help this recruitment, our section also sponsors a “Grip and Greet” event at the end of the semester’s final week. We purchase beer and snacks for all students and faculty and take the opportunity to remind everyone why they should continue to be IEEE members. It also is a great time to thank everyone for their contributions during the past year, remind students that they can contact any IEEE member for advice and help, and wish the new graduates the best of luck as they begin their new careers.
The EiR program has exceeded expectations, and while the program’s success is a testament to the many volunteers, it is also due to the enthusiastic support and encouragement from the ECE department. They have promoted the program, supported it with lunches, and a “thank you” cocktail hour for all the volunteers.
With the program now now in its third semester, we are always looking for opportunities for improvement. At the welcome luncheon, which we hold a few weeks before the start of the semester, we are planning a more thorough orientation for the EiR volunteers. From feedback, it is apparent that a little knowledge of the structure of the ECE department would be beneficial and it would make the volunteer feel more a part of the department, rather than just a visitor. We also want to communicate the goals of the ECE department so that the EiR volunteers can support the efforts to improve engineering education. We are also considering establishing a micro-grant fund that would be administered jointly by the ECE department and the EiR program to provide small amounts of money for student projects. We believe this will facilitate more interaction between students and EiR volunteers. Last, but not least, we would like other IEEE Sections to pick up the program, as diversity of experiences would only help improve and shape the program to be more effective and successful.
As the founding volunteer, I originally called the Engineer in Residence program a “grand experiment,” because it was not clear at the outset that it would be successful. Today, I couldn’t be more pleased with the results of our efforts. I want the program to continue to evolve and serve as a source of pride for EiR volunteers and the ECE department alike. Most of all, I hope students will aspire to learn from the accomplished engineers who are committed to the future of the discipline.
- "IEEE President Barry Shoop on the New Face of Leadership," Shoop, B.L., The Institute, Vol. 40 Issue, 1 March 2016, http://theinstitute.ieee.org/members/presidents-column/ieee-president-barryshoop-on-the-new-face-of-leadership
- "New Program Brings Real World of Engineering to Campus," Leland, A., Source, an online publication of Colorado State University, 29 February 2016, http://source.colostate.edu/new-program-brings-real-world-of-engineering-to-campus/
Richard Toftness is an IEEE life member who lives in Loveland, Colorado. After working for Hewett Packard for 27 years, Motorola, Control Data and several startups, Richard formed his own consulting firm, Tasterra LLC. Along with managing Tasterra, Richard and his wife enjoy the Rocky Mountain region and keep busy as volunteers at several organizations. Richard can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.