The National Society of Professional Engineers’ publication PE Magazine recently profiled a University of Utah chemical engineering program that allows seniors and freshmen to work together to learn real-world business skills. Below is the story from its January/February edition.
College engineering may not be the work world, but one program is trying to bring it closer. At the University of Utah, a collaboration with seniors and freshmen gives both groups of students valuable professional work experience while taking advantage of the two-way learning that can occur through teaching and mentoring.
In the chemical engineering department, seniors “hire” freshmen to work with them on their capstone projects—developing the seniors’ management skills and improving the freshmen’s understanding of academic and professional pathways.
Associate professor Tony Butterfield explains that many of the graduating seniors would find themselves managing technicians when they entered the workforce, but they hadn’t had experience overseeing a team. In addition, their resumes weren’t grabbing the attention of employers, and Butterfield wanted to provide a way for them to see the hiring process from the other side. Freshmen resumes submitted for his introductory class needed a lot of improvement as well. These factors grew into the idea for the collaboration, which launched in 2013.
Over their first year, freshmen develop their resumes, and toward the end of the spring semester use them to apply for positions on the senior capstone projects they’re most interested in. Seniors then make hiring decisions. The groups, typically three seniors and five freshmen, work together for about three weeks to complete the capstone lab projects.
The reaction from both sets of students has been positive, both anecdotally and on surveys. Seniors have expressed appreciation for the managerial experience, and say they find it helpful to highlight during job interviews.
Freshmen are excited about the opportunity to learn advanced skills from seniors. “They realize they can witness their future — what they’re going to be able to do in a couple of years,” Butterfield says. The freshmen also enjoy informal mentoring as part of the team experience. For example, seniors will tell them the technical electives they got the most out of or describe their experiences with internships. They may even help the freshmen with homework for another class.