Fostering student leadership in engineering: Meet Professor Alison Olechowski

Alison Olechowski recently joined MIE as an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, and is cross-appointed to the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead). In her short time at U of T Engineering, she has already begun to accomplish her teaching focus: giving students the tools and confidence to become engineering leaders.

This fall, in addition to teaching an MEng course, she will be supervising a MIE491 Capstone team.

Professor Olechowski, who completed her PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Mechanical Engineering, studies the processes and tools that teams of engineers use in industry as they design innovative new products. She has studied engineering products and projects in the automotive, electronics, aerospace, medical device and oil and gas industries.

Learn more about Professor Olechowski and what she hopes to accomplish at U of T Engineering:

What is your teaching focus?

This fall, I’m teaching a class for the ELITE Certificate for MEng students called “Leading Engineering Design Projects,” and I think that captures my teaching focus pretty well.

Being co-appointed at MIE and ILead means I get to focus on engineering design – which I really have a passion for teaching – and the ideas of project management. I think those topics lie at the intersection of mechanical and industrial engineering, and leadership.

Why is leadership so important to you and your teaching?

During my PhD, I studied teams of engineers in industry. I studied the ways teams come together to design complex new products with cutting-edge technology. I saw the technical design challenges that the teams were facing, but I also got to see how important leadership, teamwork and strategy were to the success of these projects.

It emphasized for me how important it is that we give engineering students the technical skills that they need, but also equip students the skills they need to work as a team and to flex their leadership skills, so they can have high impact and make change for the better.

On the MIE side, what else are you focusing on?

I’m hoping to advise an MEng student at MIE. I’m interested in continuing studying what methods and tools engineers can use to be more effective designers. One of my big interests right now is collaborative computer-aided design (CAD) software.

Traditionally, CAD modelling was very solitary endeavor, with challenges such as version management and cumbersome installs. In recent years, CAD modeling software has finally caught up to the rest of the world and is starting to build cloud-based collaborative tools, and I think it’s really interesting to look at how you can go from something so solitary to having a team working on, let’s say, designing a 3D model.

We currently don’t understand how these teams should work together or communicate, or even what the composition of their team should be. We don’t even know if these new tools will lead to more innovative, higher quality, or less costly products. That’s something I hope to look at more closely with an MEng student.

Why did you choose U of T Engineering?

I looked for institutions with world-class students, research and teaching. U of T fit that bill for me, and I was excited to be in Toronto.

What do you hope to accomplish as an educator?

Part of my goal is to give students confidence. I want to empower them to tackle problems and remind them that a good engineer doesn’t just have a strong technical foundation.  You also need to know how to lead, how to be creative and how to communicate. That’s what makes a solid engineer.

This article originally appeared on the MIE website. For the original article, please click here.