Preparing Tomorrow's Leaders

Bioengineering professors
teach “soft skills”
to hardwired engineers

By Ashley R. Smith

Look into the mind of an engineer and you’ll see a highly technical instrument. It has to be, in order to create such wondrous things as nanomaterials and swarm robots. Sometimes that tool is enough. But as society’s problems become increasingly complex, it takes teams of people with diverse skills to tackle them. And that is becoming the new frontier for engineers.

“Today’s problems are multidisciplinary — they don’t have a simple technical solution — so we need to appreciate the other dimensions of the problem,” Craig Laramee, assistant professor of bioengineering, explains.

Recognizing a gap between instruction and skills, the National Academy of Engineering, in 2004, called for a transformation in engineering education. Engineers, it said, needed to learn teambuilding, leadership and global awareness to succeed.

Laramee, along with colleague Hiroki Sayama, assistant professor of bioengineering, took the charge and set out to teach engineering students the skills they were missing.

Foundations for success

Often, bioengineering programs focus on the technical aspects of the field: medical imaging, artificial joints and pharmaceutical manufacturing. Engineers such as Laramee and Sayama, though, are taking what they know about the inner workings of living systems and applying it to complex systems outside the typical realm of bioengineering. For example, flocks of birds and schools of fish show complex coordination of individual behavior when, in fact, there’s no recognized leader. Their dynamic patterns emerge out of local information sharing and simple rules. These strategies can be applied to the control of technological systems, such as swarm robots, whose collective behavior is influenced by interaction with each other.

“Principles like networks are found in biological systems,” Laramee explains. “For example, the genes in your cells form a complex network — one gene activates another gene, which suppresses yet another, and so on. Their regulatory relationships are a huge network of biological switches. Social systems also are networks, such as friendships, the flow of information in an organization and the decision-making structure in an engineering team.”

In 2008, Laramee and Sayama secured a nearly $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to help them expose engineering students to the social and political aspects of multidisciplinary teams.

That fall, they introduced Exploring Social Dynamics, a course that teaches students to function as teams. And like real life, teams consist of students from different academic disciplines.

“As engineers, we’re usually very segmented from students outside Watson,” says Kristie Shirreffs, a 2009 bioengineering graduate who is completing the MBA fast-track program. “It’s very rare to be in a class with business and English majors, but it offers an interesting perspective.”

The teaching team is also cross-disciplinary, with professors Shelley Dionne, MBA ’94, PhD ’98 from the School of Management and David Sloan Wilson from biological sciences.

Examining human behavior

Course curriculum consists of five modules: collective intelligence, problem-solving, game theory, evolutionary design and social networks, and is taught through real-time simulations with the help of handhelds such as iPods, cell phones and laptops.

Students respond to lesson prompts through their individual handhelds, which are connected to a server-based platform developed by Laramee. The class’s input is compiled and results are displayed on the faculty’s computer. “The simulations are, in a sense, social experiments. And the students have to work as a team within scenarios and rules,” Laramee explains.

The mobility of the handhelds enables the students to break out of the rigid classroom rows, thereby allowing group members to experience the nonverbal cues such as body language and assertiveness that can affect group dynamics and sway a decision.

Collective intelligence, for example, is a systems principle that says a group has a greater ability to arrive at a correct answer than any one person.

handhelds“We ask the students: ‘What is the distance between Binghamton and New York City?’” Laramee says. The students answer through their handhelds and results are shared immediately. “Individuals’ answers will usually be off, but if you average and look at the collective response, it tends to be close to the right answer.”

Then the professors change the rules. Teams are shuffled, responses are limited to multiple choice, and manipulation — such as having a group member suggest an answer — is employed. Minutes later they’re able to show how team dynamics and authority affect decision-making.

Shirreffs found her passion for leadership because of the class’s emphasis on the analysis of complex systems.

“If you take a few people and put them in a room, a leader will emerge. But put that same person with another group, and he might not be the leader. It’s all about the interactions.”

Matt Hoffman, another ’09 bioengineering graduate who is now a master’s candidate in systems science, applies the course to his interest in public transportation systems. “It was a great way to illustrate how networks are designed and then look at larger systems, such as transportation. All networks have general rules, and this class gives you a way of thinking about how aspects are related.”

Having now offered the course twice, Laramee and Sayama secured a one-year extension to assess their teaching modules and technology. They’ll gather feedback to see if the delivery was effective and the technology helpful. They also will assess whether the material affected careers and success by comparing students who took the course with those who did not. And they hope to offer the course again.

“We learn from each other,” Sayama says of the faculty. “As engineers we always try to operate something — this is how you do this — whereas [Dionne] always teaches the concept first.”

But it’s the students who are vital to the success of the class, Laramee says. “We have top-notch students who think beyond what they need to do to pass. They’re looking for the lifelong lessons.” l

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