Photo: 2015-16 National Executive Board

As executive director and former national chair of NSBE, I’ve often asked myself what effect our Society has on what really matters: filling the growing talent gap our global economy needs to address the technical, social and political challenges of the 21st century. Closer to home, I also wonder what effect participation in NSBE — at all levels (pre-collegiate, collegiate and professionals) — has on our mission: to increase the number of culturally responsible Black Engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community.
 
We all know that the NSBE community provides vital social and academic support to its members through family-like bonds. Since 1975, NSBE has inspired countless aspirants to pursue engineering and earn their degrees. For post-graduates, NSBE membership provides inspiration and resources to help professionals grow technically and advance their careers. In short, NSBE is its own ecosystem of achievement that spans third grade through the engineering workplace.
 
And yet, we still haven’t had sufficient empirical evidence of NSBE’s effectiveness in fulfilling its mission…until now. I was buoyed by a recent study[1] presented by Virginia Tech and Clemson University researchers at the Annual Conference & Exposition of the American Society for Engineering Education. The study sought to learn the value of membership in NSBE and other non-curricular activities, such as black Greek organizations (BGOs) and minority engineering programs (MEPs), on the development of traits named in the National Academy of Engineering’s 2004 report titled, “The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century.”[2]
 
The National Academy of Engineering (NAE), based in Washington, D.C., is the highest engineering authority in the United States. In the Engineer of 2020 report, the NAE outlined 10 traits that engineering students should possess to address the challenges of the future. They are: 1) analytical skills; 2) practical ingenuity; 3) creativity; 4) communication skills; 5) business and management skills; 6) high ethical standards; 7) professionalism; 8) leadership; 9) dynamism/resilience/ flexibility; and 10) desire to be a lifelong learner.
 
The researchers surveyed 289 African-American engineering students and graduates from across the country who participated in up to three activities (BGOs, MEPs and NSBE) to determine whether they felt that involvement in any of these organizations or activities had a greater influence than the others on the Engineer of 2020 traits. And if so, to which organization would they uniquely link the development of the traits?
Respondents said NSBE membership was most influential in developing the following four Engineer of 2020 skills listed below. I’ve quoted the descriptions of the attributes included in the 2020 report:
 
Communication
 
Engineering has always engaged multiple stakeholders — government, private industry, and the public. In the new century the parties that engineering ties together will increasingly involve interdisciplinary teams, globally diverse team members, public officials, and a global customer base. We envision a world where communication is enabled by an ability to listen effectively as well as to communicate through oral, visual, and written mechanisms. Modern advances in technology will necessitate the effective use of virtual communication tools. The increasing imperative for accountability will necessitate an ability to communicate convincingly and to shape the opinions and attitudes of other engineers and the public.
 
Business and Management
 
In the past those engineers who mastered the principles of business and management were rewarded with leadership roles. This will be no different in the future. However, with the growing interdependence between technology and the economic and social foundations of modern society, there will be an increasing number of opportunities for engineers to exercise their potential as leaders, not only in business but also in the nonprofit and government sectors. Policy decisions in technological societies will demand the attention of leaders who understand the strengths and limitations of science and technology. New levels of sophistication will be needed as choices that affect physical, human, and political infrastructures and decisions that define priorities and objectives for a community, region, or nation are made.
 
Professionalism
 
Many of the challenges of the new century are complex and interdependent and have significant implications for the technologies intended to address them and the ways in which those technologies affect the planet and the people that live here. Effective and wise management of technological resources is integral to engineering work. The choices will be gray in nature, balancing (for example) economic, social, environmental, and military factors. Leaders, and those who influence these choices, will benefit from a sense of purpose and clarity. Successful engineers in 2020 will, as they always have, recognize the broader contexts that are intertwined in technology and its application in society.
 
Leadership
 
In preparation for this opportunity, engineers must understand the principles of leadership and be able to practice them in growing proportions as their careers advance. They must also be willing to acknowledge the significance and importance of public service and its place in society, stretching their traditional comfort zone and accepting the challenge of bridging public policy and technology well beyond the roles accepted in the past.
 
Although the respondents listed NSBE as most influential in developing these attributes, it is important to note that engagement in NSBE also helped them develop five of the six remaining traits as well. Only in analytical skills, which the MEP programs were most effective at developing, did NSBE have little effect. These findings support the creation of partnerships between colleges and universities and their NSBE chapters to prepare engineering students for the future.
 
Over the next year, NSBE will conduct further studies to determine the full effect of its programs on key outcomes such as persistence, graduation, high GPA and professional development. Until then, it’s comforting to know that NSBE membership aligns with skills that the nation’s premier engineering institution deems essential for engineers of 2020.
 
In short, NSBE matters!

 


[1] Simmons, D.R., Young, G., Adams, S.G., & Martin, J.P. (2014). Non-Curricular Activities Help African American Students and Alumni Develop Engineer of 2020 Traits: A Quantitative Look. 121st ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition. Indianapolis, IN. Paper ID #8879.

[2] The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century. The National Academy of Engineering of the National Academies. The National Academies Press: Washington, D.C.

 


As executive director and former national chair of NSBE, I’ve often asked myself what effect our Society has on what really matters: filling the growing talent gap our global economy needs to address the technical, social and political challenges of the 21st century.