Looking back on his transition from engineering student to junior engineer in a private practice, Jason Christian admits he was overwhelmed. While he believes his undergraduate courses prepared him for the technical challenges of the engineering profession, he was not ready for the complexity of the engineer-employer relationship.
“Frankly, being a staff engineer at an engineering firm is not the same thing as being an engineering student,” said Christian.
After bouncing between three firms in the first five years of his professional career, Christian says the close mentorship of a senior engineer allowed him to reset his expectations of the workplace. Christian went on to a 20-year career in engineering consulting that included a stint as president of his own firm.
Christian’s ultimate professional success led to a new career in academia where he “finds great honor” in preparing the next generation of engineers. Christian says his struggles as a young engineer are not unique, and he draws on his own tumultuous experience to guide his instruction.
Now an assistant professor in the University of Georgia College of Engineering, Christian has been named the 2016 Engineer of the Year in Education by the Georgia Society of Professional Engineers.
“I was overwhelmed simply by being nominated,” said Christian. “To have colleagues who don’t know me personally recognize the value of my work at UGA is a huge honor.”
Christian believes the award also demonstrates the approach he and his colleagues in the UGA College of Engineering are taking resonates with engineers and educators.
“We provide a tremendous senior capstone design experience for our students,” explained Christian. “It’s exciting to take a required academic course and transform it into a dynamic experience for students.”
As with most engineering capstone courses taught elsewhere, UGA students solve the technical components of their design projects, learn how to manage time and other resources, develop communications skills, and learn to work cooperatively with peers. Christian says the design courses he leads in environmental engineering at UGA are unique because he also helps students develop confidence in their individual abilities, create strategies to cope with professional and personal stress, understand their role in the workplace, and build reasonable expectations for their early careers.
“We accomplish these goals through a series of open and honest class discussions about being mentally and emotionally prepared for the transition into the workplace,” explained Christian. “I help students identify strategies to cope with life’s stresses, embrace life-long learning, understand the interdisciplinary nature of current and future engineering problems, and develop their entrepreneurial instincts.”
To enhance the collaborative nature of this multi-disciplinary course, Christian co-teaches the class with Stephan Durham, an associate professor and coordinator of the college’s civil engineering program.
The capstone senior design courses are the last, best opportunity to reach students before they leave campus, according to Christian.
“It’s critically important to address the whole individual and provide our soon-to-be graduates with the technical, intellectual, emotional, and interpersonal tools required to practice engineering successfully,” he said. “Our students eagerly engage in this unique capstone course structure and I have every confidence they leave campus well prepared to be effective, productive, confident, competent and happy in their new careers.”
Christian will be recognized as 2016 Engineer of the Year in Education at the annual Engineers Week Awards Gala on Feb. 13 at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center in Atlanta.