Program aims to improve social skills

The Gemini Project targets engineering students to teach them social skills.
September 26, 2011

Zhe Yang spoke slowly — eyes downcast while chewing on a piece of pizza — of his aspirations. Less than a year from graduation, Yang is looking to gain interpersonal skills to jump-start his career.

This semester, Yang and a group of University of Minnesota engineering students will learn a set of marketable skills through the Gemini Project – College of Science and Engineering’s new career program.

The project teaches social and professional networking skills to students who may otherwise struggle in those areas and specifically targets engineering students, program chairwoman Tess Surprenant said.

“We’re looking to build better engineers,” said Mike Siegler, one of the speakers for the program.

Siegler is one of the many professional representatives volunteering their time to train potential hires graduating from the University.

Plans for the program started in 2005, after University alumni donated $4 million to CSE, then the Institute of Technology. The donation came with the stipulation that the University start teaching important life and job marketing skills, Surprenant said.

 She said training engineering students with social skills is an emerging national trend throughout technical colleges — something that was widely overlooked before.

 “We’re starting to call them ‘transferable skills’ instead of soft skills,” Surprenant said. “Soft skills suggest they are easy, and for some people they’re not.”

The University prepares students with the technical skills, but not the people skills required to survive in the job market, Surprenant said.

CSE used to have a simple two-credit interpersonal skills course, Surprenant said, but it wasn’t required. She said the Gemini Project is completely novel to the University and will offer free classes without a registration requirement to attract a larger audience.

Each of the 11 classes covers a different topic related to people skills and will be offered every semester.

Students will learn leadership and personal networking skills, be taught office politics, teamwork and understanding generational differences between coworkers.

Surprenant hopes to have up to 100 students per class, and wide student appeal. Each class offers free food like pizza and brownies.

She said the project has drawn a lot of attention from local companies and employers.

“Companies see this as vital,” she said.

Siegler, for example, is looking for passion, integrity and an outgoing nature in applicants to his company, UTC Fire and Security.

“We don’t need them to be politicians,” he said. “We need the people skills not taught at the University.”

Corporate volunteers stay to speak with students after each class, giving interviewing tips and critiquing résumés.

Steven Peschman, a chemical engineering undergraduate, applied to six companies at the recent CSE job fair, and wants a chance to score a job.

Peschman said he plans to attend all of the classes, and thus far finds them helpful.

“Social skills are not innate to me,” he said. “I’m here to learn the things that come naturally to other people, since they don’t come naturally to me.”

Yang said he has been to several career fairs recently, but is still looking for an opportunity. Yang said he is “testing the courses out.”

The classes are available every other Wednesday throughout the semester at the Science Teaching and Student Services building, Surprenant said.

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