The University Record, January 28, 1997

Panel discusses building community through teamwork

By Janet Mendler
News and Information Services

 

Strengthening its sense of community will not be a finite effort for the College of Engineering. "Building Communities Through Teamwork" on Martin Luther King Jr. Day introduced faculty, staff, students and administrators to the efforts already undertaken at the same time it sought ideas to further promote a sense of unity. The panel discussion was moderated by Sharon Burch, program director of undergraduate education for the College.

Armin Troesch, professor of naval architecture and marine engineering, reminded the more than 100 participants of King's admonition: "We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character---this is the goal of a true education."

Audience participation and input from four panelists focused on three themes developed from information gathered through an MLK Community Survey and preliminary data from the May 1996 Graduating Senior Class Survey:

 

Current climate and depth of commitment to a diverse community;

 

Value of a U-M engineering education for the price; and

 

Academic quality of engineering students.

More opportunities for sensitivity training could help faculty and students bring a sense of empathy to their respective roles, as well as compassion for what others go through. Said one minority student, "It's difficult to understand what it feels like to be a minority if you've never been in that situation." Several audience members said they benefited from sensitivity sessions, both personally and professionally. While acknowledging that requiring attendance may be counterproductive, panelist Mercedes Barcia, a program associate in the College's undergraduate engineering office, said that sensitivity sessions do foster awareness of different cultural norms.

Peer advising and working in teams help strengthen a sense of community in and out of the classroom, several students said. Panelists Roslyn Bloom, an undergraduate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and electrical engineering graduate student Greg Posey, became peer advisers because they wished such help had been available to them early in their education. And while some faculty members require team efforts, others, students said, continue to foster a competitive environment, detrimental to a feeling of community.

Reacting to comments that more efforts are needed to help students develop relationships with faculty, panelist and mechanical engineering Prof. William Schultz noted that all faculty should be involved in undergraduate advising. A first-year student said he became acquainted with students and faculty outside his discipline after one of his professors strongly encouraged students to sample meetings of each of the engineering societies at the College. "Maybe all professors should promote attendance at meetings of diverse groups."

Several students said that large classes were not an impediment to learning. "Some professors could be teaching in the Silverdome and be effective," said one undergraduate, while Schultz said large classes impose a burden on students. "They need to take responsibility for making appointments and meeting with their professors during office hours."

While the Jan. 20 session tended to focus on the first two themes, one alumnus in attendance said his work experience convinced him that the value of his engineering education is "very high. I'm in a technical field, and I don't have an academic background in everything I do, but I know how to approach the problems---that's a skill I learned here that serves me well." He also suggested that more efforts should be made to use alumni as mentors.

Reemphasizing that community building is an ongoing process, Burch ended the two-hour session by pointing to the major themes that will drive the effort---awareness of issues that impact the College of Engineering community; the need to care for and take a personal interest in the individual, whether student, staff or faculty; mutual respect; good communication; inclusion of all members; understanding and execution of the highest ethical principles, and the fact that the institution exists to serve the needs of the community.