Soon after Ishwar Puri arrived at McMaster University in 2013 as dean of the faculty of engineering, he got in touch with Len Waverman, dean of the Hamilton university’s DeGroote School of Business.
Contact between the two faculties is not new: In the early 1970s, they developed a five-year engineering and management degree that combines core elements of both disciplines and, for interested engineers, an accelerated timetable to earn a master of business administration.
In 2014, interested in working together, the two deans held regular discussions that led to the introduction of a new business-infused minor in innovation for engineers and others last fall.
Elsewhere, in growing numbers, business and engineering faculties are seizing opportunities to collaborate on new interdisciplinary credentials for their own students, and sometimes for others on campus.
In 2017, the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business and its Schulich School of Engineering teamed up to offer an undergraduate degree in engineering and commerce in five years, at least one to two years faster than if done sequentially. At the University of British Columbia, a master of engineering leadership for “practising professionals” blends courses from the faculty of applied science and the Sauder School of Business. Meanwhile, the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School gives undergraduate business students the option to simultaneously earn a second degree in another discipline, including engineering, arts and health sciences.
McMaster’s Dr. Puri sees value in bringing together students from various disciplines to tackle some of the world’s “wicked” – meaning complex – problems, such as opioid addiction, human smuggling, the refugee crisis and climate change.
“If you think about the opioid crisis, the liberal arts or business person is not going to solve that [alone], nor will the social scientist or the physician,” says Dr. Puri, who is also an entrepreneur who works with startups to translate university research into new products. “We all have to come together.”
Of his frequent discussions with Dr. Waverman, Dr. Puri says “we had two objectives in mind for graduates: That they are employable and that they are innovative.”
For his part, Dr. Waverman says the growing academic focus on innovation recognizes the new world of work for today’s graduates.
“Innovation is a hot topic and it is so critical,” he says. “Most students are not going to graduate and go to firm "X" and rise in the ranks and retire. They will have a multitude of jobs and they have to understand how to innovate and how to think about innovation.”
Dr. Waverman says most students are unlikely to become entrepreneurs. “Innovation is not about turning out entrepreneurs,” he says. “It is about turning out people who are creative, nimble and can help organizations change.”
Last fall, the new minor in innovation developed by business and engineering and offered through DeGroote proved so popular that all available spots were snapped up in hours. In response, the class size grew to 205 students last fall, with about 400 students expected in the program this coming September.
The fast uptake – mostly by business and engineering students but also by other disciplines on campus – “told us there is demand from an employability and innovation standpoint and gave us confidence that this is what students are looking for,” Dr. Puri says. “It is interdisciplinary and it is what students think will make them more employable in the future.”
A similar drive to equip graduates for evolving careers lies behind new graduate credentials developed by the faculty of applied science and Sauder at UBC.
The normal career path for engineers is to work for several years in a technical capacity and then move into more senior positions as leaders of teams, says UBC engineering professor Tamara Etmannski, the first from her discipline to be cross-appointed to Sauder. “They [engineers] quickly realize they don’t have the skill set to do the management, leadership and business skills and many will go back to do a master of business administration.”
With backing from both faculties, she led the development of a new master of engineering leadership (for which she now is academic director) tailored for engineers with three to five years of work experience who aspire to senior positions in their profession. In 2016, in its first year of operation, the one-year program enrolled 60 students but, in response to demand, the 2019 class that began this month has grown to 95 students.
“We are getting an immense amount of interest,” Dr. Etmannski says. “Having the ability to translate business to an engineering context and teach them [engineers] how to do that translation and [explain] why these concepts matter – that is the added value of why we chose to partner with Sauder.”
As with Sauder, the University of Calgary’s Haskayne reports enthusiasm among top academic students and their parents for dual engineering and business degrees introduced in 2017, with the first graduates expected in 2020. “Students often struggle [with the question], ‘Do I go into engineering or do I go into business because I want to do them both?’” Haskayne dean Jim Dewald says. “We say you can do them both.”
This fall, about 30 students are expected to enroll directly from high school for the dual degrees. The program collaboration with engineering is the first of its kind for Haskayne and believed to be the first of its type in Western Canada.
Dr. Dewald sees potential for additional co-operation with his counterpart in engineering and notes their joint effort is well received by Calgary business leaders. “When I go to a CEO’s office and it is the two of us – the dean of engineering and me – there is an instant smile on the other side [from the industry executive],” he says.
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