Dean Folks ramping up ‘experiential learning’ for engineering students

UB Engineering Dean Liesl Folks and of UB alumnus Michael Hooven (right).

UB Engineering Dean Liesl Folks is drawing on the shadowing experiences of UB alumnus Michael Hooven (right) to increase undergraduates’ opportunities for real-world learning.

Range of engagements aimed at boosting professional experiences for undergrads

By Tracy Puckett

Release Date: August 6, 2013

“It’s a game-changing experience for students to get inside an organization and see how it functions.”
UB Engineering Dean Liesl Folks

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Liesl Folks and Michael Hooven.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Christine DiGiacomo is rare among college graduates. Not only did she secure a job before earning a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the University at Buffalo in May, but her hunt ended before Thanksgiving.

“I don’t think I would be where I am today without the experiences I had,” she said from Houston, where she has begun a two-year management training program at Cameron, a leading provider of flow equipment products, systems and services to worldwide oil, gas and process industries.

The company accepted 35 engineering graduates into its Global Rotational Development Program (GRDP) this year after visiting 15 campuses across the country. Nicole Cormier, leadership development program coordinator for the GRDP Operations and Supply Chain program, said that those selected display motivation, good communication skills, a knack for learning rapidly, an ability to deliver results and meet customer expectations, and an aptitude for coping with pressures and setbacks.

DiGiacomo believes two features of her resume had the greatest impact: a full-time summer internship in the process engineering department at MOD-PAC in Buffalo, and a Six Sigma Black Belt certification earned after completing a two-semester project at Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials in Wheatfield.

UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) Dean Liesl Folks, PhD, wants more success stories like DiGiacomo’s. At the very least, she aims to offer students a greater understanding of their options as they decide on their post-UB careers, and increase their preparedness for entering the engineering profession.

She is instituting an initiative to bring more “experiential learning” to undergraduate engineers. A new coordinator has been appointed to manage a “smorgasbord” of outside-of-the-classroom activities, including engagements of just a few hours to longer-term commitments like internships. It will roll out to graduate students as there is interest.

Interaction with industry varies among the seven SEAS departments. For example, industrial engineers complete a field project as part of their senior capstone internship. Other departments do not have such requirements, but undergraduates find opportunities on their own, with the help of faculty, or through centers like UB TCIE, whose student Black Belt program enabled DiGiacomo’s industry-recognized certification.

An estimated 60 percent of SEAS undergraduates obtain experiential learning of some form. Folks’ objective is to raise it to 95 percent in three years.

Fueling that effort is UB President Satish Tripathi’s mandate that the university engage more strongly with the external community and Folks’ mentoring experiences.

“For industry, there’s a huge advantage to being able to ‘try before you buy’ through internships that often lead to job offers,” said Folks, who was recognized this spring with the AVS Excellence in Leadership award for mentoring science and engineering students during years spent in industry.

Architectural and engineering consulting firm Wendel regularly employs full-time summer interns across disciplines – including architects and civil, mechanical and electrical engineers – at its Amherst headquarters. Employment Recruitment Specialist Carla Hart estimates that eight of every 10 interns are from UB. The university’s programs, maturity of students and convenient location make for an ideal fit.

“We groom the person in hopes there will be a full-time job for them,” Hart said, mentioning that in addition to serving on meaningful projects, students typically undergo a training program. They are asked about their learning interests and, many times, request soft skills-related topics, such as interview techniques or how to bridge generational gaps.

Hart added: “It’s nice for us to be able to train and start to mold them, in hopes that they will be a future Wendel employee.”

Some students stay to work through the fall. Others return for another summer. Several have been hired.

Folks also sees value in short-term commitments, especially when considering UB’s “Finish in 4.” That program pledges to provide entering freshmen with academic resources needed to graduate in four years, but requires students to adhere to tight schedules which may preclude internships.

She envisions incorporating a European work-study model into UB’s new Winter Session that debuts in January 2014. Students would spend two or three weeks at a company, working with a multi-disciplinary team to help solve a problem.

Benefits have also surfaced from half-day “shadowing” experiences. When UB alumnus Michael Hooven began connecting students with companies, he didn’t foresee the impact it would have. Three engineering students who completed their sophomore year this May are working in paid summer internships in their fields, following mentoring from Hooven.

Hooven’s volunteer involvement developed organically after contributing to a UB Alumni Association career event. Since September, he has aligned multiple opportunities for a handful of students from engineering, business and communication disciplines. Companies agree to host a small number of students for two to four hours. The students sit alongside one employee or more to discover workplace responsibilities and roles.

As he began making phone calls on behalf of Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering (CSE) students, he said he expected to hear, “No, we’re too busy.” However, “it’s been quite the contrary. I think these companies realize that these are the civil engineers of the future,” Hooven said.

Companies hope the few invested hours will better prepare students for the workforce. Employers say that shadowing provides a glimpse into what a company does and highlights skills, such as writing, communication and working on a team, that are necessary in addition to foundational theory.

Hooven’s experiences and Wendel’s track record are examples of the strong, local business support for engaging UB students. Folks’ goals are to expand the regional base while leveraging the 28,000 engineering alumni worldwide and establishing relationships with Canadian-based companies.

“There’s pretty limited diversity here, so they’re not seeing how diverse the real world is,” Folks said, explaining that exposure to cultural and ethnic diversity is important for a largely local undergraduate base. “And an understanding of global trade is something that most Western New York students are not all that familiar with.”

CSE Department Chair Andrew Whittaker, PhD, agrees that industry experiences are a necessary academic program component.

“Too often, I think our students go to an interview and they answer questions, but they don’t ask a lot of questions,” he said. “The interview is meant to be a dialogue, and an internship helps you craft the questions that you need to ask.”

He compared classroom learning to a monologue, in that information is consumed and feedback is given via homework and exams. Internships are more like a conversation.

“Once you move into the real world, you find that you work with many different types of professionals,” Whittaker said. “It opens the eyes of many of our students – that civil engineering is not particularly linear and work is influenced by many.”

DiGiacomo’s introduction at MOD-PAC taught her that not all issues are cut and dry. Eight months at Saint-Gobain reinforced the value of workforce support, when she needed to gain operator buy-in for optimizing a set of systems and increasing throughput.

“When I told them what I was doing, they said, ‘Good luck with that. We’ve been trying to do that for years,’” she said.

Guidance from company liaisons and a program mentor steered DiGiacomo to get involved in shop floor operations, resulting in greater cooperation and meeting her goals.

“It’s a game-changing experience for students to get inside an organization and see how it functions,” Folks said. “I think it also does a lot to round them out professionally so that, when they graduate, they look like potential employees.”

Hooven can attest. After each shadowing session, he notices growing confidence.

“I think this has really given students a step up, just through interaction with professionals in the workplace,” he said. “I have seen the development in them.”

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