“One thing younger students really struggle with is understanding, when they’re designing a product or service, that there are multiple stakeholders,” McGourty explains.
“Even when you say who’s the customer? There are multiple levels to that, and you need to identify them, communicate with them, understand their perspective, and how they see the problem and the potential solutions. All of that needs to be worked out, and especially in a city environment, where you’ve got to communicate to building owners, government agencies, technology experts, banks, and so on.”
McGourty hopes the IBM partnership will also help his students learn about the benefits of collaboration.
“I taught essentially the same class to two classes last semester — one was an undergrad class and the other was a group of mid- to senior managers in an executive training course — and I gave them both the same task one week: I divided them into teams and asked them to make a wiki for their team and use it to collaborate with each other and with other teams. I gave them all the tools they’d need and sent them away with it because I wanted to see what they would do.
"I expected the younger students to be all over it, and the older class to be at a loss, but the following week, the younger group just had eight empty wiki pages and the older class had posted YouTube videos and links, they were talking to each other and actually using this collaborative space. And I realized, these people are used to doing this at work; the younger kids are used to Facebook and Twitter and all that, but they still need to learn how to use these tools for work.”
Industry analysts and pundits have been arguing for the past few years about whether the United States has a critical lack of engineers and scientists. While China and India seem to be graduating more and more students in these areas of study, the numbers in the United States have been dropping off.
Tech startup guru and Duke University executive in residence Vivek Wadhwa has argued that mislabeling of graduates on both sides explains a lot of the discrepancy between, for example, China’s 600,000 engineering graduates and the United States’ 70,000 engineering graduates. McGourty adds to that the fact that he believes engineering programs are providing fundamental problem-solving skills to people who often don’t go on to be technical engineers.
“In my experience, more and more people are finding that engineering is a great way to set yourself up to contribute to society,” he says. “You don’t have to be an engineer when you’re finished, but you have this great skill set at the end for solving problems.
"If we can work on our engineers to have all those advanced skills, whether they become an engineer or go into law, medicine, politics — I would love to see politicians have these skill sets — they are set up to benefit society.”
IBM’s program at Columbia is officially launching on Thursday, in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The company plans to roll out similar partnerships at other educational institutions throughout the United States and elsewhere.
Big Blue’s solution to whatever engineering shortage there may be seems to be to take matters into its own hands and go into the schools to train the people it needs. Lucky for the rest of us, at the moment those needs happen to coincide with the greater good.