What Do Engineers Do During the Day? Hint: It’s Not Math

Engineering education misleads young engineers about what engineering practice is all about.  By concentrating almost all classroom air time on mathematics and the solution of well-formed problem s in physics or engineering science, we give young people the impression that they will spend most of their time doing these things at work in there real world.

Yet careful reflection about what engineers actually do during a day reveals that they engage in a variety of acts involving natural language.   Engineers write reports, emails, prepare and give presentations, speak on the phone, in the hallway.  Only occasionally do engineers do math, solve problems, and the other things that most of their training concentrated on.

As a result, there is a need following the usual cold war engineering education to backfill a young engineer’s education in the area of communication, but even these well-intended efforts concentrate on macro matters of form and ignore micro-level concerns for the nuts and bolts of language.  Fortunately, the discipline of philosophy discusses these matters under the rubric of speech acts, and modern coaching practice has made speech acts a core competency.

A good place to read about these matters is in the book Language and the Pursuit of Happiness by Chalmers Brothers, especially chapter 7.  Master coach, Lloyd Raines has a lovely handout on speech acts (here) and the wheel of complete communication, illustrated by a number of practical examples.

A small step toward a more practice relevant education would be to incorporate these ideas into engineering education and the pedagogical training of engineering professors and instructors.  ThreeJoy offers a number of training courses for students and for faculty in which speech acts play a crucial role. Contact me at to learn more.

Trust and the “We Weren’t Sure You Were Serious” Moment of iFoundry

In 2009, the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education ( admitted 73 freshmen into a special pilot freshmen experience that consisted of the following elements:

  1. A one-hour course Introduction to the Missing Basics of Engineering.
  2. A zero-credit extracurricular activity called iCommunity (handbook here)

The course consisted of two small hands-on projects and small discussion sections that discussed the critical and creative thinkings skills called the missing basics (video and paper).  The iCommunity consisted of 4 student-run teams aligned with student aspirations: Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Engineering in Service to Society, Services and Systems Engineering, and Art and Engineering Design.

The early days of iFoundry went swimmingly with a positively framed launch experience called iLaunch in which team-building activities were run, including a low-ropes course and team selection. Thereafter, things got a bit bumpier as the teams didn’t know what they should do.  The iCommunity had no requirements, and the teams kept asking what they should do.  iFoundry leaders answered by saying they would have the opportunity to report on their plans at the midterm iCheckpoint, but that what they did was up to them.

iLaunch 2009

This lack of structure caused a good deal of consternation.  “What do you want us to do?” was a constant refrain, and we answered, “You’re an entrepreneur go build something,” or “You want to save the world, start saving.”  These complaints and confusion continue up until the iCheckpoint, at which time, all four teams made lovely presentations about their plans, some of which were quite ambitious.

The evening of the iCheckpoint concluded with a kaizen or improvement session in which feedback was sought on how to improve.  A number of useful suggestions were made, and then one of the students raised her hand, and said that she had a comment not an improvement.  We asked, “What’s your comment?” and she continued as follows:

“We weren’t sure you were serious about us doing what we wanted to do, and then we realized you were, and it was really cool.”

Upon hearing this, I looked at iFoundry Associate Director, Karen Hyman, and she looked at me, and we both knew in that moment that something special had happened, but we didn’t know how special.

Immediately following that evening it was as if they students had been unleashed.  They started to take action and initiative without our permission and the remainder of the year was a whirlwind of freshmen taking uncharacteristic initiative in self-directed fun and learning activities.  In thinking back on why this happened, we realized that it was consistent with modern thinking about intrinsic motivation, but we realized that fundamental dynamic was about trust.

In short, we trusted the students, they believed they were trusted, and that belief resulted in them having the courage to take initiative in ways that aligned with their own aspirations.  In hindsight, there were a number of other actions on the part of iFoundry organizers that helped set up these virtuous circumstances, but the fundamental action was trust, and trust has become a pillar of the ThreeJoy approach to transforming engineering education around the globe.

To find how you can build trust into your change initiative, write to me at

A.B.E. – Anything But an Engineer

Students in developed countries want to be A.B.E, anything but an engineer.  The deck below considers this difficulty.

[slideshare id=13393593&doc=abe-anything-but-an-engineer-pptx-120620093031-phpapp02]

It considers also the way in which the Big Beacon (here) may be a way to overcome this difficulty.

Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner

I heard Tony Wagner at an Olin College event in Palo Alto on Sunday and his thoughts about how to educate a generation of innovators as described in his book Creating Innovators.  See the book trailer  below:


The book is available in hardcover and kindle versions here.

Engineering Students Can Do X

Read my new article on the Huffington Post, Engineers Students Can Do X, here.  One of the experiences described in the article is giving a talk and having a student ask the following questions:

How do you learn to have the courage to be present as a leader?”

I realized in the moment how central the question was to learning to lead and to effective education more generally.  Read the article to see the larger set context and my answer to the student’s question.

Incubators, Incubators, Everywhere

einsteinDoing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result paraphrases Einstein’s definition of insanity, and one of the insanities of engineering education is the belief that the same old organizational structure (with the same old culture) will give us something substantially different in the delivery of an engineering education.  The current organization of higher education goes back to the German idea of a university developed in the 19th century, which itself was built on the scholastic notion of universities of the middle ages.  To move beyond University 2.0 of the 19th century requires some rethinking of structure (among other things), but one of the promising directions is the idea of an incubator as implemented at The Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education (

iFoundry connects across the organization to achieve lateral alignment not from the top-down or the bottom-up, but from the middle out.  Two principles guide the design of iFoundry: respect for faculty governance and the open pilot of innovative programs.  The normal departmental vote on curriculum essentially vetoes curriculum innovation (“transformation is fine, just don’t change my course”).  An incubator cuts this Gordian knot, permitting innovation and requiring a vote for final change, thereby respecting faculty approval processes.

The model continues to function at Illinois, and it is being taken up by others, including schools in Singapore and Brazil.  The generalization of these ideas is the notion of a respectful, structured space for innovation or an RSSI, in which a meso-level dot connector connects across an organization for lateral alignment.  These topics are part of the ThreeJoy smooth change methodology used in change initiative engagements and change training courses.  Write for more information.

Serial Innovators Book is Out

Griffin, Price & Vojak have released their long-awaited book on serial innovators, Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms.  The thinking in this book was instrumental to the formulation of iFoundry thinking about engineering education transformation ( and is baked into many of the offerings of ThreeJoy Associates.

An excerpt from the book on problem finding is up at Fast Company (here).