On a recent Friday afternoon, a group of St. Thomas students gathered in a room at the Facilities and Design Center. Standing in a circle, they verbally tossed random words to their classmates until the room was swirling with excitement. The buzz continued to grow as the group of mostly sophomores came together for another improvisational exercise that had them building off one another’s ideas – one student declared herself a basketball hoop, the next a net, followed by a ball, then a player. The key was to communicate on the fly while working as a team.
This wasn’t an acting class. The 18 students were part of the Compleat Engineer Boot Camp, a J-Term course comprised of engineering majors and led by School of Engineering faculty member Dr. Doug Dunston. For two weeks they worked on empathy, storytelling, listening and improvisational skills – things not necessarily associated with engineers.
Mechanical engineering major Paige Huschka said engineers face a “they can do math and solve problems, but can’t talk to each other” stereotype. While she doesn’t completely agree with this sentiment, she said the boot camp has helped her gain valuable communication and empathy skills.
“One thing that stuck with me is people tend to go straight to the problem and solve it right away,” Huschka said. “Now, I’m better at stepping back and looking at the empathy parts of it and asking, ‘How is this problem affecting everyone else?’ before jumping right into solving it.”
Listening, curiosity and empathy
The project is funded by the Kern Family Foundation’s KEEN Network. The KEEN Network is a collaboration among faculty at 30 engineering schools throughout the country, with the goal to transform engineering education.
“One way to describe KEEN’s focus is the mindset of engineering education,” Dunston said. “We spend a lot of time developing technical tools and all the latest ways to solve problems in design and solutions and things, but how do you apply those tools? It’s the approach to that. You can have a great hammer, and you can hit things with it, but how do you know when to use the hammer? Whether to use the hammer? How to share a hammer?”
School of Engineering dean Don Weinkauf said the boot camp helps cultivate attributes of an engineer that need developing for them to go into society and create the best solutions.
“Listening, being curious about other people, empathy toward others – these are traits not associated with a typical engineering education,” Weinkauf said. “What we’re trying to do is build those other components into our curriculum. This particular class is the first time we’re reaching out directly to the students and training them as ambassadors with these skills.”
Sophomore Drew Winkoski said the course helped him recognize different ways of thinking.
“Normally, I’m not too great at thinking of stuff on the spot,” Winkoski said. “We did a ton of improvisation and interacting with people in ways you might not think of. We looked at how other people might take what you are saying and how you are doing things. It really got me out my comfort zone, but got me to think of things from another person’s point of view.”
One boot camp session featured guest speaker Kerri Miller, a Minnesota Public Radio host and expert at facilitating conversations. Miller found Dunston’s course description intriguing.
“Listening is something I notice isn’t going on a lot in the way we communicate with each other,” Miller said. “I thought the idea of getting future engineers and scientist at this level – even before they’re out practicing their work – was an interesting idea.”
Helping students become better listeners is extremely valuable, said Miller, who noted their astute observations during the time she spent with them.
“There was one student who was talking about tempo,” she recalled. “He was saying that with listening there’s this tendency to get done saying what you’re saying, so I can say what I’m saying and we’re not absorbing what the other person says. He was thinking about how the tempo of a discussion can really matter. I do it all the time, but it’s something I hadn’t thought of in that way.”
Thanks to her experience in the class, Miller has invited Dunston to be a guest on an upcoming round-table installment of her radio show to talk about listening and building empathy in science-based fields.
‘An Engineering Team’
Back at the Facilities and Design Center, the opening improv session had wrapped up. Students dispersed into small groups to prepare a brief presentation covering what they’d learned while studying senior design projects as part of the course. During the break, junior Keoni Mortenson reflected on what he’ll take away from the Compleat Engineer Boot Camp.
“In my personal experience I’ve always been a part of athletic teams, but I’ve never been a part of an engineering team,” said the computer engineering major. “The biggest thing I’ve learned during the boot camp is discovering we’re not the only team that goes into a project. There are also people who are part of this team who are the stakeholders and clients. It helped me communicate more effectively with the different aspects of this team.”