Engineering Leadership Development helping to expand horizons and break barriers

October 06, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In a society focused on advancement and innovation, engineering has become synonymous with technology and progress.

But, it is not enough for engineers to be technically competent.

In order to solve the world’s problems and excel in their careers, engineers need to develop key attributes that define leadership — individual, team and organization leadership; courage; tenacity; multicultural awareness and sensitivity; inclusion; innovation; and entrepreneurship.

To encourage emerging Penn State engineers to better understand the importance of cultivating a diverse and inclusive environment, the Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) program requires students in its ENGR 408 Leadership Principals course to personally visit and experience an alien culture. This may be a place, event or discussion that is alien to the students, forcing them to step outside of what is familiar and comfortable.

Mike Erdman, Walter Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development and instructor of engineering, science and mechanics, said this assignment provides students with the opportunity to view a different culture, complete a self-assessment of their biases, and learn what they can do to address these beliefs in the future.

“This experience is key to developing engineering leaders. Students say that transformational experiences help them to realize they can effectively tackle their fears, and display the courage admired in leaders,” he said.

Because the assignment is meant to challenge the students’ thought processes, Meg Handley, associate director of engineering leadership outreach, said students are instructed to objectively observe, acknowledging they will always have room to grow.

“We have seen that once students face the unknown and move out of their comfort zone, they are more confident in doing it again, taking on new challenges and having the confidence to move forward,” she said.

To accomplish this, students were instructed to experience something new – something they had never tried before.

Isabelle Torhus, a sophomore majoring in supply chain management, attended an open forum discussing racial matters in America, specifically surrounding the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Forum attendees spoke about racial issues Torhus was not aware of. Being involved with this discussion opened her eyes to what is happening in the country, helping her to better understand how she can become involved with the movement for change.

Because of the nature of engineering work in today’s interconnected economy, Torhus feels it is vital for engineering students to be exposed to differing cultures and global issues as early as possible.

“When we seek to understand more cultures, there is more room for branching out, innovation and showing respect for differences in our society,” she said.

In addition to simply attending an alien culture experience, the assignment also requires students to engage and interact with the people or culture featured at the place, event or discussion.

Jesse Cunningham, a sophomore engineering major, said previous interactions with homeless in State College made him want to learn more about their situations, other than what he noticed on the surface. To do so, Cunningham chose to volunteer with Out of the Cold, a program organized by local churches to provide area homeless with a warm, safe place to sleep in the winter months.

“So much goes into being homeless, like the housing market, broken relationships, lack of opportunities, and preconceived notions,” he said. “I used to think it was as simple as not working and not paying rent, but being homeless is a real struggle — one that is hard to come to grips with.”

Interacting with the local homeless population impacted Cunningham in a way he didn’t expect — completely changing his view of those in the State College area without a home of their own.

“There’s just so much to learn about others. Every person has a story of where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going,” he said. “The homeless population in State College is a very misunderstood group. It’s not just the man sleeping on a park bench, but it's our colleagues, peers and friends who struggle as well.”

ELD also offers ENGR 497, a course focused on developing cross-cultural competence when leading diverse teams. It is currently under permanent review to become ENGR 422. The course is designed around partnerships with universities in Budapest, Hungary; Pretoria, South Africa; and Sydney, Australia. Penn State students work virtually throughout the semester with students from these universities, learning how to work with different cultures and work environments to solve engineering problems. During Maymester, Penn State students have an opportunity to travel to meet with their international team members to finalize their project.  

Kristen Meihofer, a junior majoring in industrial engineering, said the opportunities this course provided her with helped her better understand how to work in diverse teams. She took this skill to her internship with Danaher this past summer.

“I had to work in diverse teams on a regular basis. It (ENGR 497) taught me that gaining an understanding of different perspectives will help build positive relationships that help get a job done,” she said.

Handley said though many things may take people out of their comfort zones, experiencing different cultures and beliefs pushes students to expand their horizons relating to human interaction, preconceived notions, stereotypes and interpersonal understanding. This is crucial for today’s global engineering workforce to understand.

Torhus agreed, saying Penn State’s diversity provides students with ample opportunities to discover and experience new things each and every day, something she didn’t always take advantage of before her ENGR 408 assignment.

“Being put in an uncomfortable or new situation can lead to you learning a lot about yourself, and of course, other people or subject matters,” she said. “It is vital to learn about other cultures to show extra respect and understanding.”

Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) is an academic program housed within the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) at Penn State. It provides numerous opportunities for students to enhance their global and cultural understandings through an 18-credit minor and the new engineering leadership and innovation management one-year residential master’s degree.

For more information on both programs, visit

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Last Updated October 25, 2016