Feeds

Engineers are troublesome 'expert loners', says prof

Media image, student foolishness blamed

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

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. ®

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
Our LOHAN spaceplane ballocket Kickstarter climbs through £8000
Through 25 per cent but more is needed: Get your UNIQUE rewards!
Cutting cancer rates: Data, models and a happy ending?
How surgery might be making cancer prognoses worse
Boffins ID freakish spine-smothered prehistoric critter: The CLAW gave it away
Bizarre-looking creature actually related to velvet worms
CRR-CRRRK, beep, beep: Mars space truck backs out of slippery sand trap
Curiosity finds new drilling target after course correction
SpaceX prototype rocket EXPLODES over Texas. 'Tricky' biz, says Elon Musk
No injuries or near injuries. Flight stayed in designated area
Brit balloon bod Bodnar overflies North Pole
B-64 amateur ultralight payload approaching second circumnavigation
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Scale data protection with your virtual environment
To scale at the rate of virtualization growth, data protection solutions need to adopt new capabilities and simplify current features.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?