Posted September 19th, 2017 by Liz Do

Fostering student leadership in engineering: Meet Professor Alison Olechowski

  • Professor Alison Olechowski

    Professor Alison Olechowski. (Photo: Liz Do)

Engineering is a collaborative process, and effective teamwork is a key requirement for success. Professor Alison Olechowski (MIE) takes a scientific approach to understand how teams come together, and leverages that insight to give her students the tools and confidence they need to become enigneering leaders.

Olechowski recently joined MIE as an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, and is cross-appointed to the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead). This fall, in addition to teaching an MEng course, she will be supervising a MIE491 Capstone team. Olechowski completed her PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Mechanical Engineering, where she studied the processes and tools that teams of engineers use in industry as they design innovative new products. Her research is wide-ranging, covering the automotive, electronics, aerospace, medical device and oil and gas industries.

Writer Liz Do sat down with Olechowski to learn more about 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.

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.