Soft Skills in a Hard Science Curriculum

What does it take to be a leader?photo of Carmen Zafft

Carmen Zafft, assistant professor of practice in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication, challenges freshmen engineering students to answer that question every day. Zafft collaborates with the College of Engineering to teach introductory leadership courses to engineering students each semester.

"Industry has made it very clear that these students are technically prepared in the hard sciences, but they are not as prepared in what we call ‘soft sciences,' or communication skills areas," Zafft said. "Universities need to do a better job of incorporating communication and leadership curriculum into existing engineering courses."

That's why Zafft, by using curriculum from ALEC's introductory Interpersonal Skills for Leadership course, introduces beginning engineering students to the principles and practices of interpersonal relationships for students' own leadership development.

"Students are not born engineers," Zafft said. "They have to learn skills in math and science. The same is true of leadership."

Zafft enjoys making connections between the hard sciences and soft sciences for her students by challenging them just as much as advanced calculus or robotics classes will challenge students later in their college curriculum.

"Some of these problems look a little different than engineering students are used to," Zafft said. "For instance, your group disagrees and you have to reach middle ground without totally destroying someone's feelings."

Students gain a greater sense of self-awareness through self-reflection and by exploring their values during class through group work and during a 20-hour volunteer service learning experience. Students choose an organization in the Lincoln community to volunteer their time and reflect on their experience. Through their volunteer work and reflections, Zafft wants students to begin to see themselves as leaders.

"I see some students who are hesitant about whether or not they have what it takes to be a leader and who are just completely nervous," Zafft said. "By the end of the year they are so seasoned, it is like a graduation, watching them go off and experience the rest of their academic career with all the skills they learned."

Zafft empowers students to immediately practice all the interpersonal and leadership skills they've learned by employing teaching assistants, otherwise known as "TA's," who have taken the introductory course in the previous semester. Two TA's are assigned to each section and some teach multiple sections, with up to 20 students in each section.

"I lecture, then the TA's act out the content. They do the presentations and the discussions – they are facilitating the lab," Zafft said. "I see them in a leader and mentorship role. They are developing their own community with their lab sections and implementing what they learned from the semester before."

TA's meet once a week with Zafft to prepare lesson plans and activities for students to delve deeper into lecture content and reflect on their service learning experiences.

"The main goal of the lab section is to provide a workshop where we facilitate discussion among students and allow them to explore concepts from class a little deeper," Jake Culey, sophomore mechanical engineering TA said. "It's a really good opportunity to connect on a personal and peer level."

"I love the discussions and reflections," Shannon Said, junior biological systems engineering TA said. "I love getting students to really dig deep and bring out their inner thoughts because engineering students often have a heavy schedule of math and science courses, without courses focused on personal development and emotional intelligence."

Emotional intelligence is a term used to describe the ability to express one's emotions and handle interpersonal relationships with understanding and empathy.

"As engineers, we are always hoping to be as intelligent as we can," Culey said. "I think the importance and stress of the technical skills often outweighs the importance of emotional intelligence."

"The first semester I started teaching ended up being one of my better semesters," Said said. "It started a whole series of self reflections and using the things I had learned in class. I got to know myself better, how I view myself and how others view me. I started thinking, ‘Maybe I can do so much more than I think I can!' And I began to ask myself, ‘Am I playing it safe or am I actually fulfilling my own potential?'"

"These TAs are becoming leaders in the engineering community," Zafft said. "They are dealing with real world issues and have the opportunity to experiment. If they fail, they do so in a safe environment. I feel it catapults them into being successful for the rest of their time as an engineer."