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Engineers are troublesome 'expert loners', says prof

Media image, student foolishness blamed

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US researchers say that graduate engineers tend to be egoistic loners who can't work properly in teams, much to the aggravation of their employers. Responsibility for this distressing state of affairs lies partly with the media, which portrays a misleading image of what it is to be an engineer, and partly with older students at college who lead youngsters astray.

The new insights come to us courtesy of research by Paul Leonardi, Breed Junior Chair at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

"Industrial advisory boards are always saying engineers come to the workplace with good technical skills but they don't work well on team projects," says assistant Prof Leonardi. "We wanted to know why. It's not a lack of skill — engineering students are smart people. So why aren't they working in teams?"

Leonardi and his colleagues spent several years interviewing engineering students and watching them work on projects. It seems that several counterproductive themes emerged.

First, when told to work on something as a group, typical engineering students would instead break the project up into separate jobs so as to avoid working collaboratively.

"There's a stereotype that engineers do things by themselves," Leonardi says. "So when students are asked to work in teams, they think, am I going to be disadvantaged? When I go to the workplace am I not going to be as valuable?"

The prof believes that this stereotype of solo engineering comes from "television programs and other media".

Another troubling tendency, according to Leonardi, was that student engineers didn't much care to follow instructions as to how to solve a problem. Given a detailed roadmap by professors, they tended to ignore it and instead get to a solution by their own means.

"They would figure out workarounds and try to reintroduce more difficulty into the task," Leonardi says. "It was a mark of distinction not to follow the task."

Finally, students would procrastinate about actually starting work, leaving a task until the last possible minute and deliberately completing it under severe time pressure. Leonardi says this was not laziness, but rather a form of boasting designed to show off one's competence among other students.

All these bad habits, according to the prof, were worsened by bad example from more senior students. Such naughtiness was generally defended by statements along the lines of "that's what engineers do".

"It's important for organizations to get involved with engineering education, providing internships and co-op opportunities," says Leonardi. "It allows students to see early on other images of engineering so they can see that there are images of engineers out there other than the expert loner."

The research paper, The Enactment-Externalization Dialectic: Rationalization and the Persistence of Counter-Productive Technology Design Practices in Student Engineering, can be read by subscribers here. ®

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