Leadership & Management70

Agile, Higher Education and Educating the Next Generation of Engineers

Agile, Higher Education, and Educating the Next Generation of Engineers

Jim York

June 14, 2023


In 2017, 55 students embarked on pursuing an undergraduate engineering degree just as thousands of other engineering students across the nation did that fall. The difference this cohort faced was that their engineering program did not yet exist. Whereas most new programs have two to four years of planning, this new engineering program would be created just-in-time as the students progressed through their four year journey to become engineers.

The founding team arrived on site just six weeks before the students and their goal was to reimagine engineering education in a liberal arts context and ensure the program could be accredited. This is a story of agility in higher education including both its successes and its sacrifices.


Agile, Higher Education, and Educating the Next Generation of Engineers (PDF)


About the Speaker(s)

Dr. Olga Pierrakos, Ph.D
Founding Professor, Founding Chair,
Department of Engineering Wake Forest University


Dr. Olga Pierrakos served as the Founding Chair and Professor of the Wake Forest University (WFU) Department of Engineering from 2017 to 2022. As a national thought leader in STEM education and innovative ecosystems, Olga led her team to reimagine and redefine engineering education with a vision to Educate the Whole Engineer and a commitment to the university mission of Pro Humanitate (For Humanity).

The unprecedented diversity of the student and faculty body, as well as curricular innovation, were highlighted program strengths by the external accrediting body. Prior to joining Wake Forest University, Olga served as Program Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the Division of Undergraduate Education where she managed a $100 million dollar portfolio of investments in STEM education efforts.

Prior to NSF, Olga served as a Founding Engineering Faculty of Engineering at James Madison University for nearly ten years. Olga has BS and MS degrees in Engineering Science and Mechanics from Virginia Tech, and a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the joint program between Virginia Tech and Wake Forest University.

Jim York
Leadership & Team Coach, FoxHedge Ltd.

Jim York is a business owner with a focus on helping teams discover how to delight their customers. He uses systems thinking, agile and lean to co-create resilient, learning teams with a focus on value. As a coach, he teaches others to grow in directions that matter to them to achieve their goals and pursue their passions.

Jim is a Certified Agile Coach®, holding both the Certified Enterprise Coach and Certified Team Coach credentials; Certified Scrum Trainer®; Agile Fluency® facilitator; LeSS Practitioner and co-founder of FoxHedge Ltd.



Video Transcript


Thank you. So great to be here. Yes. All right. I'm Olga. I'm Jim. We're here to tell you… Let's see, where the slides? Yes, I can see them here getting oriented. We're here to tell you the story of building Wake Forest Engineering from scratch. We literally started, me and my founding team, six weeks before the students arrived. This is a story of innovation, of rethinking and reimagining engineering education, but also a story of agility, 'cause we had to do this from scratch. It wasn't just a curriculum. It was supporting the faculty to be productive faculty, to go through promotion and tenure. It was going through accreditation. We'll talk about all of that. You see a picture on the slide. We were expecting 15 students, and 55 showed up 6 weeks before, and all we had was a course title.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself, and Jim will share a little bit about himself. I was born in Sparta, Greece, and at the age of seven, I was released into the wild to go hunt and kill to survive. I survived. I'm here. I'm just joking. I didn't have to do that. But my students believe it 'cause I showed them the picture of King Leonidas, and that's a real statue in Sparta. I immigrated here with my family at the age of 10, and we moved to Richmond, Virginia, where I went to middle school and high school. Then from there, I ended up at Virginia Tech, a top engineering school. All right, we've got some Hokieshere. That's right, Laura. As a first-generation college student, I navigated four different engineering departments. I was clueless about what engineers do. I thought that engineers were just mechanics. But I fell in love with engineering upon taking so many classes. I'm a really interdisciplinary engineer, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering, biomedical. I'm actually the first PhD with a biomedical engineering degree at Virginia Tech, trained by aerospace engineers and I study the flow in the heart, so cardiovascular fluid mechanics, if anybody wants to talk later. Virginia Tech allowed me to see, really as a student and as a first-generation college student, many ways upon which we can improve education. I could follow a traditional path in academia and go and do teaching and research at a top research university, or I could go off and build a brand new engineering program. That's what I did at James Madison University. I was a founding faculty at JMU in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and I touched every aspect of building the program. From there, I went from the weeds of building a brand new program to the National Science Foundation, where I managed about $100 million of taxpayer money that was funding STEM education, research, and innovations across our nation. I went from the weeds to the national landscape of seeing how innovation can take place in STEM education. From there, I was given the opportunity to serve as the founding chair of Wake Forest Engineering. Me and my family arrived there six weeks before the students arrived. That's a quick snapshot. Wake Forest was my second time building an engineering program. I am a mother of four, and my oldest son, he told me not to point him out, but he is there, and so they keep me going. All right, so a little bit about me.

I'm Jim York, and I am a leadership and team coach. I started off as a team member. I was a team of one. I got to experience everything soup to nuts, what team members do, and then I realized I wasn't enough. I had to encourage other people to join my team, and I found myself building a team. Over time, I discovered that more teams were needed, so I helped build more teams. Then others asked me to help them build teams. About 25 years ago, I shifted from being in the trenches building stuff to helping leaders build and develop teams. That's what I do. In 2008, I started a company, FoxHedge, with my wife Melissa, who's here in the back. She's the boss, by the way. The journeys that I've experienced in working with clients, very eclectic mix, higher education, nonprofits, government, commercial, wide range of industries. I've had the privilege for the last 10 years to know Olga. First met Olga, actually, through her husband John. He attended one of my Agile classes and invited me down to JMU to teach some of the students there. It was a wonderful experience. In talking to John, the reason he wanted me there was because employers were asking for students to have some familiarity with these concepts from Lean and Agile. They were pulling and the university wanted to respond to that. John in particular, wanted to respond to that. About three years later, Olga showed up in one of my Agile classes. Olga, perhaps you might want to give a little background why you came to the class.

Absolutely. I was hearing the same thing. My husband was in information technology, I was in engineering, and actually when I took your class, Jim, I was at the National Science Foundation. The National Science Foundation invested in us doing professional development, and I had put us on the side doing some training with Jim, not ever imagining that the opportunity at Wake Forest Engineering would present itself. But in the middle of all that, in the training, I was constantly thinking, and I remember talking to you after the training, Jim, and saying this for me, the power of the training was allowing me to rethink how we do operations within any academic department in higher education. It just started sparking ideas. I really believed that not only our students needed the training and the mentality that comes with agility, but also educators and all parts of higher education.

In 2017, all of a sudden, I get a call. Olga has got some great news. Wake Forest University created an opportunity. Do you want to share what happened? Absolutely. Thanks, Jim. Here's me and three founding faculty. We arrived what was an old tobacco warehouse. The year before is what that building looked like on the pictures on the left. The university was able to leverage some tax credits and build this new academic building stemming from the tobacco warehouse. At the same time, the university also did an admission study and discovered that they were losing top students who wanted to come to Wake Forest and do engineering, but that was not available to them. Those two opportunities of now having an academic building that was this old tobacco warehouse plus admissions, recognizing that we were losing students, made possible for engineering to exist. It was a very quick move, and that's where we started six weeks before the students arrived. Olga, what was going through your mind six weeks before? You're looking at this essentially empty tobacco warehouse, six weeks students are going to arrive. What was going through your mind as you're looking at it with these three founding faculty members?

I knew I had to take it one day at a time. Because I had been through a founding startup department, I knew who was ahead. I knew my team wasn't, but I had to also get them there. There was a lot ahead that we had to lay out. Just to point to the pictures now, you're seeing one of our circuits and instrumentation labs. We went through 400 renovations to build that 30,000 square foot of space. Preparing for takeoff, what that looked like. We started, there was no website, no vision, no mission, no clear identity of what the program should be, could be. There was no courses. All we had was that first course title, and students were coming six weeks from now. No equipment, no operating budget. Where I started with the team in thinking about what we wanted to create is we started to envision because the students weren't there yet, what should the graduate, what should our graduates look like? What purpose do they serve? We started describing the attributes of the kind of student that we wanted to graduate and what kind of engineer society needed for us to graduate. It was a consistent commitment to thinking about the purpose that our engineers and our graduates will serve for society. This opportunity at Wake Forest, it's a liberal arts college, and so we're talking about creating an engineering program in the context of a liberal arts university that also has a research mission as well. Their motto is Pro Humanitate (For Humanity). So service backed to society. We're looking at creating something new in an environment that has a lot of riches. Right. A lot of traditions. It was a unique combination of knowing liberal arts and research are coming together, with an intentional knowledge of thinking about we need to prepare students for humanity and engineers for humanity. We quickly came to this idea of we wanted to educate the whole engineer. It was a nontraditional way of doing engineering because we broke the silos of engineering in the way that traditionally engineers have to select whether there'll be mechanical, civil, environmental in the first year. We quickly broke those silos and eventually hired a team of faculty representing over 12 disciplines. We also wanted them to be fearless. One of the descriptors that we came up with in the kind of student we wanted is to be fearless. We wanted them not to be fixated in any one type of engineering, to have both breadth and depth in their understanding of how they add value to society and to also be virtuous. We also connected quickly with philosophers and psychologists to think about how we educate them more holistically. That integration of the liberal arts, it wasn't just tacked on at the end, it was through the entire program.

You invited people in as part of the creation process. Absolutely. And that was essential. I knew that because I had seen the traditional engineering education on Virginia Tech of having to navigate 4 different departments when they were already 12, I saw what we did at James Madison University and I never had the intention of copy pasting anyone else's curriculum. I knew that we had to reimagine how we did it. Yeah, this slide further shows you when actually Jim came at the start of year two to do training with the team, this new redefined team that we'll talk about in a little bit. But the work ahead was immense and it was very collaborative and intentional. This just shows you a glimpse of the amount of work that was needed. It goes beyond the curriculum. This is like one quarter of the wall. Not only was shared visioning an essential part of the first two years, not only was it delivering, so this flying the airplane and building it at the same time, onboarding and recruiting, the team kept doubling five to six faculty and staff hires every single year. Advising students, mentoring them, supporting them through internships, evaluations of faculty of staff renovations. On top of that, accreditation on top of that, pandemic. The intensity was definitely a lot. The idea of the whole engineer, we needed to establish some focus.

This was one of the reasons why Olga invited me in the beginning of year two. We had talked about creating this engineering program and creating a new experience. Question is, for whom? One of the questions that I asked of the faculty in a retreat that we had in the beginning of year two was, who is your customer? It generated some interesting conversations, didn't it, Olga?

It did. We were probably anticipating that would be a 30 minutes conversation. It ended up being an hour, and we had to cut it short. But we did agree that as a start, we would focus on the students. Ultimately, we knew that our success would be defined by what they do and how they enter into the workplace and the value that they add. Absolutely, that became a key part of how we created engineering. The students were part of the visioning. As soon as they were on site, we would spend class time and class discussions to understand what motivated them to come to Wake Forest. Why are they thinking about engineering as a profession that they wanted to pursue? They became part of the visioning, the planning in classes, with surveys, with immense feedback. Really, they became our partners in building the curriculum, in designing and envisioning the experiences we wanted them to have in order to produce the kind of engineer we wanted. Every aspect, they were part of the team. The team included other faculty from other disciplines within the university. It included external experts from the community that involved people for the projects that the students would work on. The students themselves were integrated as part of this team experience with, again, the students at the center of everything. It was all for the students. Right. Even the workshop that Jim did for us in the second year, actually several of them, faculty were there, staff were all there, our teaching assistants were there. These are students that had just graduated from the traditional of engineering paths, and then our own students were there. We invited colleagues from the humanities. We invited colleagues from policy, psychology. They were our partners to rethink and reimagine how we should be educating engineers. We didn't pretend to have all the knowledge. You're seeing in the picture the stretcher there, we quickly started to create a project-based curriculum. We wanted to give students both theory and practice. You're actually seeing an emergency medicine physician who came and was the client or the customer for a first year project to look at spine immobilization. You saw that we engaged also community members to show real-world practice to engineering students from the first year.

The students, again, were integrated into this process. They were part of the creation process. It was absolutely critical to have their voice and to listen to them sense and respond to what was going on with the students. Keep in mind, when these students arrived six weeks after the faculty, this is not an accredited program at the time. This is brand new. They're taking a leap of faith into a creation of an engineering degree with no guarantee whatsoever that this would be an accredited program. Five and a half years later, Olga. Five and a half years later, we're very proud of the fact that 75% of our graduates have pursued majors and minors beyond engineering. What it means for us to educate the whole engineer is that we're not telling them only engineering. We want them to be not just good engineers, but good people and bring in all their interests to the table. We've been able to recruit and retain 42% women who national averages in engineering are 20% max for most programs of female students. We've actually become the most diverse academic department at Wake Forest. To imagine that engineering is the most diverse academic unit at a university is another one. Twenty five percent students of ethnic and racial diversity and so we're proud of that. The faculty body also intentionally we used research-based practices for hiring and recruited 60% female faculty. The successes are many and on top of getting accreditation.

I see we're at the end. But the biggest challenge, just to quickly wrap it up, is we're trying to figure out sustainability. I've stepped down as chair, and so what the future holds is yet to be determined. We're intentionally supporting the team that continues the work to see where it goes. Thank you so much. Thank you.

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