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Board 89: What Engineering Students Think About How They Learn Professional Skills

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Kelly Ann Cave Colorado State University

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Kelly Cave is an Industrial-Organizational Psychology doctoral student at Colorado State University. Her research interests include occupational health, training, and organizational culture. She is currently working as a research assistant on the NSF-funded Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) grant with Colorado State's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.

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Zinta S. Byrne Colorado State University Orcid 16x16

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Zinta S. Byrne is a tenured full professor of psychology at Colorado State University. Her previous careers were as software design and development engineer, project manager, and program manager for Hewlett-Packard Company, and as a management consultant for Personnel Decisions International. She is author of "Understanding Employee Engagement: Theory, Research, and Practice" and "Organizational Psychology and Behavior: An Integrated Approach to Understanding the Workplace". She is the past Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Managerial Psychology, serves on several editorial boards, and has published in peer-reviewed scientific academic and practice outlets. She frequently consults with organizations across the country, and actively collaborates on grant funded research with engineering departments, focusing her expertise on organizational culture and climate and psychological measurement on understanding the impact of engineering curriculum reform on faculty and students alike.

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Thomas J. Siller Colorado State University Orcid 16x16

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Tom Siller is an Associate Professor in Civil and Environmental at Colorado State University. He has been a faculty member at CSU for 30 years.

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Anthony A. Maciejewski Colorado State University

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Anthony A. Maciejewski received the BS, MS, and PhD degrees in electrical engineering from Ohio State University, Columbus
in 1982, 1984, and 1987, respectively. From 1988 to 2001, he was a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University, West Lafayette. He is currently a professor
and head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Colorado State University. He is a fellow of IEEE. A complete vita is available at: ~aam.

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This case study describes the evaluation of a professional learning institute (PLI) implemented in the college of engineering (COE) at a mid-sized university in the Western region of the United States.

The original goal of the PLI (established in 2007) was to encourage the development of engineering students’ professional skills required for ABET accreditation and often lacking from the traditional engineering curriculum. Engineering education largely focuses on science, technology, and mathematics as its core content [1]. This emphasis on technical skills, combined with lack of in-class time spent on professional development, inadvertently sends the message that professional skills, such as communication and leadership, are secondary to engineering [2]. However, professional skills have become even more valuable than ever as engineers are expected to work in diverse, interdisciplinary teams [3].

Our evaluation of the PLI was a part of a larger project aimed at investigating student attitudes towards professional development. COE students were surveyed about their overall attitudes towards ABET professional skills: communication, ethics, cultural adaptability, leadership, teamwork, innovation, and civic and public engagement. They were also asked whether the PLI, in its 10th year of operation, was effective, valuable, and engaging. Open-ended comment boxes were included on the survey. Out of 2628 COE students, 534 completed the entire survey, for a typical online survey response rate of 20% [4]. The sample was proportionately representative of the COE student makeup across grade levels, sex, race, and major.

Results of analyses of variance on the quantitative data and content analyses of 310 distinct comments showed that students expressed value for developing skills in the ABET areas. However, negative comments specifically aimed at the PLI overwhelmingly outnumbered positive comments. Non-traditional students indicated the PLI was a waste of time, mostly due to a lack of acknowledgment or credit for their relevant work experiences. There was no “test-out” capability incorporated into the PLI. Both non-traditional and traditional students commented on an already heavy course load, time better spent studying technical course content, PLI requirements considered an “extra” and not part of their curriculum, and the poor administration of the PLI. Most common suggestion for improvement included “if it’s that important incorporate professional development into the core curriculum.”

Largely due to our study results, which were released at the same time the electrical and computer engineering program began integrating skill development into their major (as part of an NSF grant to revolutionize engineering education), the PLI was removed as a graduation requirement and rebranded as a career development resource. In its place, each engineering department within the COE is responsible for integrating professional skill development into their existing curriculum. This new approach focuses on the integration of professional and technical skills, as opposed to treating professional skill development as secondary to technical skill development.


[1] Farr & Brazil, 2010 [2] Byrne, Weston, & Cave, 2018 [3] [4] Nulty, 2008

Cave, K. A., & Byrne, Z. S., & Siller, T. J., & Maciejewski, A. A. (2019, June), Board 89: What Engineering Students Think About How They Learn Professional Skills Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32453

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