Engineering World-Class Leaders

For twenty years, the Engineering Leadership Development minor—in Penn State's College of Engineering—has provided innovative opportunities for hands-on learning and global impact.

In the fall of 1995, the idea of offering a leadership program specifically for engineers was essentially unheard of across the higher education landscape, but faculty leaders at Penn State knew it would offer students untold value. Today, more than 600 graduates of the Engineering Leadership Development Minor (ELDM) in the University's College of Engineering now contribute to society across a wide variety of industries, practicing skills honed through the pioneering program.

Two students work on a baobab processing machine as a partner in Benin, Africa, looks on.

Baobab Processing in Benin

Students put the finishing touches on a baobab processing machine on a trip to Benin, Africa. The ELDM baobab project addresses the process of turning the baobab fruit—a staple of the West African nation—into an economic opportunity for the people of Africa.

Image: Penn State

"[H]aving a bona fide leadership program such as ELDM inside a college of engineering is radical—not just different, but radical."—Donald Horner, former ELDM director

"I think the ELDM experience was just as valuable for me as my undergraduate degree," says graduate Tyler Pritz, 2012 chemical engineering graduate. "It broadened my horizons of what an engineer can really be."

Pritz, who works with colleagues from across the globe at a firm in Abu Dhabi, is a perfect example of a Penn State engineering student who got the chance to prepare in a very practical way for a career in the new globalized workforce. 

The Beginning of ELDM

The first two ELDM courses, debuted in fall 1995, were Technology Based Entrepreneurship and Introduction to Leadership.

"The program overall and each course in specific had to be experiential—focusing on how to think rather than what to think—and had to create situations where participants knew what needed to be done but most probably lacked the knowledge, skills, and/or abilities to accomplish what needed to be done," explains Jeffrey Soper, the program's first director.

Focusing on the teachable moments created by the friction of situations that stretched students beyond their comfort zones, Soper instituted the use of personal leadership journals meant to help develop greater self-knowledge—long considered a prerequisite for leadership ability.

Students play with a group of Moroccan children

ELDM Students in Morocco

ELDM students engage a group of children in Morocco. Students traveled to Morocco to work with a women's cooperative in finding ways to ease their work extracting meat from argan nuts.

Image: Penn State

"ELDM really gave me a certain confidence. That allows you to walk into a situation—no matter how challenging it is, no matter how different it is. That was invaluable."—Erick Froede, Siemens Healthcare, '10 Mechanical Engineering, '13g

Requiring students to take on an unheard of amount of autonomy was another strategy employed to help them develop as leaders. For the program's capstone course, students were required to set their own learning objectives and then create projects that forced them to achieve those objectives.

"Simply put in the words of most students, the program changed their lives," Soper reflected. "Many employers appreciated the enhanced skill set of the graduates of the ELDM and actively recruited them." 

Global Influences

The 2005 launch of a new course titled International Leadership of Enterprise and Development teamed Penn State students with business students at Corvinus University in Budapest, Hungary. Working together virtually, students from both schools collaboratively consulted on real-world projects from clients based in locations across the globe. 

"Understanding other peoples' cultures and knowing that not everyone is the same as you has been really helpful in the workplace and everyday life. The minor taught me that we can change a lot of peoples' lives with the work that we're doing."—Abbie Swoboda, General Motors, '13 Mechanical Engineering

By establishing relationships with universities in Morocco, Benin, and Belgium, then-director Rick Schuhmann opened the door for the kinds of projects the ELDM is known for today, in which Penn State students travel across the world to immerse themselves in other cultures while applying their engineering skills toward real challenges. 

A student works with a Moroccan woman

Cracking Argan Nuts in Morocco

A student helps a woman in a cooperative in Tiout, Morocco, with methods to extract meat from the argan nut. This is how many women in Morocco earn their money—the country is the only place the argan tree grows prolifically—but traditional cracking methods create hazards for the women.

Image: Penn State

"These international experiences were interwoven with leadership, scholarship, project management, and empathic design in such a way that I believe the students were truly transformed by their experiences," says Schuhmann.

Today, students have worked on experiential projects ranging from gray water processing in Mexico City to agricultural product design in West Africa to rainwater harvesting in Haiti. These students have discovered first-hand the power of learning by doing on a global scale. 

A map shows locations including Mexico, Haiti, Peru, the UK, Belgium, Hungary, Morocco, Senegal, the Gambia, Benin, Ghana, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Malawi, and Madagascar.

ELDM Destinations

Students and faculty in the ELDM program have visited seventeen countries and states on five continents over its twenty-year history.

Image: Penn State

ELDM Today

Under the leadership of current director Andrew "Mike" Erdman, yet another generation of Penn State students has traversed the globe, implementing service-learning projects that transform their lives while honing their leadership skills.

"This program is one of the best in the country in terms of taking engineers and turning them into leaders. [W]ith the skills I've learned here, I'll be able to do anything. I think that is absolutely priceless."—John Connolly, Chemical Engineering

"Overall, the program has been an outstanding success, with more than 600 graduates—many of whom have gone on to stellar careers in leading engineering efforts," Erdman noted. 

But now, he wants to reach even more students: "Our twenty-year journey continues to be a work in progress," says Erdman. "Fortunately, we have had a solid base to build upon, with lessons learned that have helped to shape our future."

"ELDM remains today as vital and innovative as ever. That's one thing that isn't going to change."—Andrew "Mike" Erdman, the Walter Robb Director of ELDM