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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Sept. 8, 2006

Engineers and public leaders

by Mike Krapfl

It was lunchtime in the student director's cubicle.

There were a few chips. A brownie with sprinkles. And lots of good words about being a change agent, growing as a person, helping younger students and sharing some lessons learned.

Krishna Athreya and student director Sarah Walter

Krishna Athreya (right) and student director Sarah Walter reach out to students, helping create growth opportunitites with the Engineering Leadership Program. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Grab a chair and meet the student leaders of the College of Engineering's new Engineering Leadership Program: student director Sarah Walter, a senior in mechanical engineering from West Chicago, Ill.; associate directors Greg McGrath, a senior in mechanical engineering from Rockford, Ill.; Aaron Seitz, a senior in chemical engineering from Council Bluffs; and later, speaking on the phone, Tyler Rasmussen, a senior in mechanical engineering from Independence.

Yes, they all said, they have plenty to do to keep up with their classes.

But they're committed to taking time to develop a leadership retreat, match first-year students with faculty and peer mentors, facilitate leadership seminars, plan monthly dinners and discussions about public policy and organize a community service project.

Why worry about all that?

McGrath said he spent his first two years on campus buried in his books. But then he took his studies to Monterrey, Mexico.

"I realized there's a lot more to life than school," McGrath said of his time abroad. "I got involved in international programs and I finally found what I was passionate about."

And now he wants to help younger students do some of that growing.

Walter, whose resume includes service on the Government of the Student Body, thinks sharing some of her leadership experience will be good for students and for Iowa State.

"I've learned a lot about leadership and leadership development and being a change agent in the community," she said. "I feel a responsibility to relate that information to my peers so they can become better leaders than I've been at Iowa State."

Engineers as leaders

The College of Engineering launched its leadership program last spring when 11 freshmen were named 3M Scholars. This summer the college picked another 17 freshman scholars from a pool of about 120 applicants.

The college's goal is to eventually have 60 3M Scholars on campus.

A $500,000 gift from the 3M Corp. of St. Paul, Minn., is providing each of the scholars with $2,500-a-year scholarships for four years. It also supports development of a leadership program.

Mark J. Kushner, dean of the College of Engineering, has been talking about developing the leadership skills of engineering students since he arrived on campus in January 2005.

"Engineers have been successful in the corporate world, but they generally haven't aspired to political leadership," Kushner told the College of Engineering's alumni newsletter at that time. "What would this country be like if there were, say, one hundred engineers in Congress? People able to make objective, return-on-investment types of decisions? Who are not easily swayed by less analytic arguments? That's a perspective we're in dire need of."

Kushner isn't alone in advocating for engineers to take on leadership roles.

The Engineer of 2020 -- a report from the National Academy of Engineering -- says engineers need to be prepared for a new role in society.

"The Engineer of 2020 urges the engineering profession to recognize what engineers can build for the future through a wide range of leadership roles in industry, government and academia, not just through technical jobs," the report states. "With the appropriate education and training, the engineer of the future will be called upon to become a leader not only in business, but also in nonprofit and government sectors."

Engaging students

Step out of the student director's cubicle and you'll find Krishna Athreya just around the corner. She's the director of the Engineering Leadership Program and she's happy to talk about the program's potential.

"We're at the beginning phase and I think the sky is the limit," she said. "We have very dynamic students who have a lot of passion and energy that they bring to us. It's up to us to engage that."

The program took a step toward that late last month when it sponsored a three-day retreat for the 3M Scholars. There were ice breakers and team builders. There were leadership and ethics discussions. There was time for social networking.

Click through the digital photos from the weekend and you'll see students smiling through team-building games, students in serious group discussions, students presenting their ideas and first-year students getting to know some older students.

Athreya said the leadership program also aims to reach out to the rest of the college's students. One proposal for doing that would create faculty and student partnerships that build a leadership and service learning focus into the college curriculum. She said the college and the political science department are discussing joint engineering and public policy programs. Other ideas include creation of resource materials and instructional programs related to ethics, diversity, service and other leadership issues.

Athreya, a physicist with a research background in materials science, coordinated Iowa State's Program for Women in Science in Engineering from 1993 to 2000. From 2000 to 2004, she directed the Women's Programs in Engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. She's a co-founder of Engineers for a Sustainable World, a nonprofit group dedicated to addressing global issues of poverty, sustainability and collaboration.

And as she goes about her new job developing the College of Engineering's leadership program, it's clear she and the students working in the cubicle next door have similar motivations for taking on the job.

She just wants work that's relevant and does something to impact students and society.

"When you provide meaningful opportunities for students to engage," she said, "you can always engage them."


"When you provide meaningful opportunities for students to engage, you can always engage them."

Krishna Athreya, director of the Engineering Leadership Program