June 22, 2008
June 22, 2008
June 25, 2008
13.278.1 - 13.278.10
Career Development and Professionalism within a Biomedical Engineering Capstone Course
Many facets of professionalism in addition to technical skills are critical for engineers as they seek to put their knowledge and problem-solving experience into action in the workforce. The so-called “professional skills” necessary for productive career development (e.g. effective written and oral communication, networking, etc.) are especially important in biomedical engineering (BME) due to the rapidly evolving nature of the field and the diversity of students attracted to BME – and the correspondingly broad range of careers that they choose to pursue, including biomedical and biotech industries, academic research, intellectual property, FDA regulation, consulting, finance, and other professional tracks. To address the need for undergraduates to possess adequate non-technical skills prior to graduation, BME curricula typically use capstone courses as vehicles for teaching professionalism. In the BME Capstone course at the University of Virginia, we have instituted several mechanisms for instilling a wide array of non-technical professional skills in BME majors. An emphasis on career development begins at the outset of the course with a formal project selection process that features a BME Capstone “Project Fair,” which is similar to a job fair where the students submit resumes and interview with potential advisors and then submit formal cover letters to apply for their top- ranked projects. Interactive workshops and lectures throughout the year cover topics such as interviewing, negotiations, giving constructive feedback, and effective leadership. The Capstone course also employs periodic corporate-style progress reports, “Solutions Workshop” small- group discussion sections that require students to succinctly summarize their project and respond to in-depth questioning, and individual accountability meetings. Preliminary assessment of these enhancements to our BME Capstone course has revealed that students, on average, have greatly improved in their ability to: verbally communicate the details of their projects concisely; convey the overarching problem that motivates their work; speak confidently about what they have accomplished and where their projects are headed; recognize when they require additional expertise and guidance; understand better how to use their existing networks and build on these networks to find such additional expertise when necessary; and consistently communicate with their advisors and collaborators in a timely and professional manner. The initial successes observed after applying these methods in our BME Capstone program indicate that a strong emphasis on a broad array of non-technical skills enhances student professionalism, thus more effectively empowering graduates to embark upon successful careers.
Almost invariably, engineering curricula heavily emphasize the development of technical skills: knowledge of mathematics and the sciences, problem solving, engineering practice, experimentation, and design. However, non-technical skills – the so-called professional skills – are increasingly seen as essential to the complete education of a modern engineer, thus leading to these skills’ explicit delineation in ABET Criterion 3, Program Outcomes d, f, g, h, i, and j.1 However, there has been considerable debate as to how such skills (sometimes less favorably referred to as “soft skills”) are most effectively taught and assessed.2
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