Emphasizing Soft Skill Learning and Training as Part of an Engineering Curriculum Revision

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1 Emphasizing Soft Skill Learning and Training as Part of an Engineering Curriculum Revision S. Pedrazzini Professor, Dean of CS Engineering Curriculum SUPSI, University of Applied Sciences of Southern Switzerland 6928 Lugano-Manno, Switzerland Conference Topic: Curriculum Development. Keywords: Soft skills in engineering, work in team, interpersonal communication. INTRODUCTION It is largely recognized that engineers of the future must be able to do more than just perform technical tasks ([1], [3]). The engineer profile has developed from the professional and scientific engineer of the last century to the enterprising engineer ([2]). This must also have an impact to the engineering education. While the new structure will, almost certainly, continue to be based on a solid preparation in mathematics and sciences, it is likely to emphasize the professional role of the engineer, and the demand of soft skills. In this paper we will explain how we tried to introduce soft skills elements into our new revision of the bachelor curriculum in computer science engineering. Some abilities are introduced explicitly as part of dedicated courses; whereas some others are pushed through technical group works and exercises in laboratories. We will explain what particular skills will be learned and why. 1 GENERAL There are many reasons why a curriculum must be renewed in its structure. If you take into account a computer sciences engineering curriculum, you will certainly argue that the main need for renewal derives from the continuously evolving technologies, which generates new needs for technical skills in the future engineers. Try to consider the first CS curricula, born less than three decades ago, directly related to and developed from electronics engineering studies. In the meantime they evolved from hardware domains to more software ones, from strong electronic knowledge to logic and programming elements, up to the abstraction levels to what we now call ICT, information and communication technology. Of course there is still a distinction between more traditional CS studies and ICT ones, but this trend shows the evolution that such curricula have followed.

2 We do not need to argue that the technology evolution is a mandatory factor to consider in the renewal. What we want to show, however, is that this is not enough; there is more than that. The engineer is daily confronted with many technical disciplines, and needs to be able to interact with peers from other fields. At the same time the importance of the engineer in the society is such that we cannot limit his role to the technical competences. He often holds responsibilities in his work that one should not underestimate. These are the reasons why we tried to consider further skills when redesigning our CS engineering bachelor curriculum during or last renewal process, started two years ago. 2 FURTHER SKILLS We call here soft skills all required skills that are not strictly technical ones or basis mathematical skills, as required during the first semesters. The more visible soft skills are related with the personal communication, but this is only one aspect. Other ones have to do with the ability to work in team, the ability to take decisions, the readiness to adapt to new situations, etc. Interdisciplinary elements are also considered soft skills, even if they are more related to technology aspects, because what we want to train with interdisciplinary courses is not the specific mix of different technical disciplines, but the ability to afford more than one single aspect, having to do with different profiles, and the latter is clearly more related with soft abilities. 3 REVISION Let us bring some figures to be able to get a quantitative overview of the new skills required and considered in the curriculum revision. Of course not all soft skills described here are new in the curriculum, some of them were already trained before. We give here however the current situation. Out of 180 ECTS, the total number of credits we consider for the bachelor studies, almost 70 are quite directly related with soft skills. Of course not all new skills are taught and exercised through dedicated courses. We have dedicated courses and courses where such non-technical skills are fostered as part of technical practical works and exercises. What we want to reach through dedicated courses within the curriculum is: general improvement in communication (oral and written communication, understanding the problems of intercultural communication), new language learning, career development, interpersonal skills, team building, entrepreneurship. All these topics are learned and exercised within dedicated courses to an amount of 24 ECTS. The same and other skills will be learned and trained through works in laboratories (15 ECTS), where the students are expected to work divided in groups. Each group needs to be

3 self-organized, will have an own customer (and need to understand its importance), will analyze the requirements (activity requiring strong interpersonal skills) and will need to present the results. The presentation is considered an important task within the laboratory requests. Of course the thesis work (14 ECTS) and other required activities or presentations within the curriculum will also exercise soft skills, in some cases more, in some cases less less. This is for instance the case with some modules in the third year that we introduced to foster multidisciplinary collaboration (until 10 ECTS), another important skill that every computer science engineer should train. Table 1. ECTS Distribution Table 1 shows the different blocks composing the curriculum, specified with their corresponding ECTS. The first four blocks summarize the four cited elements: the 24 ECTS of the dedicated courses, the 14 of the thesis work, the 10 of the courses requiring multidisciplinary collaboration, and the dedicated laboratories for the team works. To show some more details, the 24 ECTS of the dedicated courses are structured as follows: Almost 50% is spent for foreign language learning. We push English as language absolutely needed in any engineering field, but as minority region in a country where almost 70% of the population is German speaking, we encourage improving German as an important element for one s working career and as part of the engineer s own personal growth. We also consider languages as an important element to get along with managers, customers, and co-workers, as well as being an element of a higher education, which should distinguish an engineer. Like with other skills, we try to push such courses to explain their importance. Motivated students will then improve their foreign languages skills going abroad for an Erasmus or doing a stage during or after the study.

4 1/6 of the credits are given for communication skills. A dedicated course is offered in order to exercise and improve communication skills, oral and written, as well as being able to interpret and understand the problems of intercultural communication. The latter point has a very practical background, i.e. giving some insights on how to deal with people in offshore projects. About 1/4 for business and economics, where not only more technical and classical elements like bookkeeping are trained, but also aspects that should lead to what we call the enterprising engineers. To understand such aspects you do not only need to know what to do to prepare a business plan or set up your own company, but you need to acquire self-confidence, and understand your role as engineer in the society. As explained before, there are bunches of credits for soft skills integrated (not hidden) into other, more technical courses. In particular, we dedicate a total of 15 ECTS to group works in laboratories. We try to summarize the main elements that you can actively train in such laboratories, as part of a technical work and as part of important engineering required skills: team leading, team collaboration, conflict resolutions, public speaking, written communications, technical writing, how to get along with co-workers (good or bad), importance of customers, collaboration with the customer, ability to apply knowledge, ability to design a system, component, or process to meet the desired needs, with the needs, and not the technology, as main topic, ability to work on multi-disciplinary teams, ability to identify, formulate and solve engineering problems. Some aspects will appear alone, as part a normal group dynamic self-organization; some others need to be emphasized using some good habits that we force as part of the team organization. An example is pair programming, used to foster collaboration, discussion, and also useful for aspects like negotiation. Another aspect that is worth to emphasize through pair programming is simply having fun, at least to contradict the bad cliché of being a neglected priority for engineers, as specified in [5]. Another example is the use of agile development methodologies, where elements like active role of the customer and changing requirements are strongly emphasized. Other aspects should be considered as part of an engineering curriculum, but are probably more difficult to find a dedicated place. Among them, elements like the understanding of one s own professional and ethical responsibility, the political sensitivity and, at least, the importance of a broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global context ([4]).

5 4 CONCLUSIONS We had the opportunity to renew our CS engineering curriculum and we tried to increase the time dedicated to soft skills, with special courses or simply emphasizing some usually hidden aspects within working groups. We do not have quantitative results to show, measured on our new students, due to the shortterm introduction of the revision and due to the difficulty in measuring the direct benefits. We can only say that our effort has been at least appreciated, not last because we tried to explain our intents and the benefits that this can lead to in a longer term. We consider, in fact, that together with the investment in time and courses for soft skills, one important step is to explain the reason of their presence in a technical curriculum. It often happens that students in technical curricula do not appreciate non-technical courses, only because they consider them not useful for their career. Other than pushing them as such, it is then crucial to explain their largely recognized importance in their working life. REFERENCES [1] Engineering Education and the Bologna Process, SEFI Position Paper, A Joint communication of SEFI and BEST in view of the 8th Ministerial Conference in Bucharest, April [2] Edward E., Soft skills for engineer, softskills-for-engineers, [3] Goleman D.: Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, [4] Klaus P.: The Hard Truth About Soft Skills: Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They'd Learned Sooner, Peggy Klaus, [5] Rost J., Glass R.L.: The Dark Side of Software Engineering: Evil on Computing Projects, Wiley-IEEE Computer Society Press, 2011.

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