Developing engineering leadership through experiential learning

Varshini Chellapilla
April 19, 2018

From learning about smart manufacturing at Rockwell Automation to viewing helicopter simulators at Lockheed Martin and testing tracks at General Motors, Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) students travel to industry supporters’ facilities throughout the year in order to gain more industry experience.

Experiential learning trips are part of the curriculum for ENGR 408, an introductory course about engineering leadership development that serves as the entry course for the ELD minor, and ENGR 409, a leadership course for engineers focused on excellence in corporate performance.

“Developing leadership is not just about going into the classroom and learning about leadership. It is about having students go through experiences that help them to understand more about themselves as leaders and more about how leadership fits when they transition to the workplace,” Meg Handley, associate director of engineering leadership outreach and assistant teaching professor, said. “These offsite experiences give students the ability to see firsthand where leadership is being applied within an engineering context in industry.”

This spring, the students traveled to Cleveland to learn more about the application of smart manufacturing developed by Rockwell Automation. The trip included a tour of Rockwell Automation’s manufacturing facility that implements smart manufacturing techniques. There, Bill Boor, CEO of Great Lakes Brewing Company and a Penn State alumnus, talked to the students at a networking dinner. This was followed by a tour of the brewing facility, where students learned how automation within the brewing process is used to revolutionize the way food and beverage manufacturers operate. Students also had the opportunity to hear from Rockwell Automation leaders, including Penn State alumni Rachel Heidenreich, vice president of quality control and continuous improvement, and Francis Wlodarczyk, vice president and general manager of product management.

“I love the energy, great questions and perspectives the students bring,” Heidenreich said. “I also enjoy having the opportunity to share my career experiences and what I like about Rockwell Automation.”

Last fall, students visited Lockheed Martin’s mission systems and training facility in Owego, New York. Students toured the hangar and learned about processes to build and test helicopters for military and humanitarian efforts. Lockheed also introduced an innovation center within the facility that encouraged employees to take time out of their normal workday to experiment with new technologies, demonstrating to students their commitment to creating a culture of innovation and creativity. Students were also offered the opportunity to practice flying a helicopter in the company’s training simulators.

“The Penn State Engineering Leadership Development curriculum provides students with experiences and tools that will be extremely valuable as they begin their engineering careers,” Paul Mittan, a Penn State alumnus and project engineering manager at Lockheed Martin, said. “By visiting an industry partner, students have an opportunity to see the intersection between engineering and leadership outside of the classroom. These experiences help students understand how the technical and leadership skills they learn are applied in the workplace, which in turn sets them apart during the recruiting process."

A recent trip to General Motors involved an extensive tour of the company’s facility in Michigan. Established in 1923, the General Motors Proving Ground was the industry’s first dedicated automobile testing facility and currently covers 4,000 acres. Students visited the various testing tracks and had the chance to watch cars undergoing performance tests. Along with the vehicle testing tracks, students toured the General Motors Heritage Center that included a portion of the company’s history of cars and hundreds of cars on display.

General Motor’s corporate employees presented an introduction and history of the company to the students, including an address by General Motors Vice President for Business Intelligence Group Cathy Clegg.

“I’m the only girl in my team and I know that is the case for many teams across the board,” said Maitri Solanki, a sophomore studying mechanical engineering and minoring in engineering leadership development. “It was amazing to see presentations by women at [at the different facilities] because women want to lead. Considering the current atmosphere in the workplace and how women constantly face biases because of it, I feel like this course taught us how to handle situations like that and to prove ourselves.”

According to Wesley Donahue, an associate professor of the workforce education and development program in Penn State’s College of Education, competition in workplaces continues to increase.

“Organizations can essentially buy the same equipment and use it the same way, but the organizations with the best-trained and educated people will produce the best products and services,” Donahue, who teaches a section of ENGR 409, said. “One of the goals of taking trips to organizations in ENGR 409 is to have students observe first-hand that leadership does make a difference.”

Throughout the semester, ENGR 408 students apply the leadership they have learned inside and outside of the classroom via team projects. These projects focus on design solutions for improving different operations in industries and businesses. Final presentations were given during the trips to Lockheed and GM this year. Engineers from the sponsoring companies attended the presentations and provided feedback on project solutions and students’ presentation skills. These courses are examples of industry and academic collaborations to enhance students’ learning experiences, connect curriculum with workforce needs, and educate students on potential career opportunities.

“The entire course, from the trip to the project, was a learning experience that taught me more than I could learn from inside a [traditional] classroom. I hope to take more challenging classes and projects like this in the future,” Solanki said.

Lynne S. Jozwiak, program management office execution manager and lead Penn State talent scout at General Motors, agreed and encourages students to participate in experiential learning courses like those offered by ELD to take advantage of as many educational and networking opportunities as possible.

“The ELD class visit was a great way to not only meet talented engineering candidates that understand the value of leadership attributes to promote their ideas, but [to also] provide [companies like] General Motors an opportunity to show these future customers the exciting products we have to offer and how they can be a part of our company’s future.”

  • Engineering leadership development students pose for a group photo at GM

    As part of their trip to visit a GM facility, ELD students received a building tour, visited testing tracks and watched car undergo different performance tests.

    IMAGE: Meg Handley
  • Students learn more about application of smart manufacturing developed by Rockwell Automation during a facility tour

    Students traveled to Cleveland to learn more about the application of smart manufacturing developed by Rockwell Automation.

    IMAGE: Meg Handley
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Last Updated July 18, 2018