Carnegie Mellon University
May 06, 2014

Lessons in Consulting

Lessons in Consulting
CEE’s aspiring consultants can now add in-depth professional preparation to their spring schedule. Created by CEE’s Environmental Engineering Sustainability and Science (EESS) group, the 12-718 Sustainable Engineering Projects course is specifically designed to help Masters students develop skills relevant to the consulting profession. Though it’s only in its second year, the class has already received positive reviews from both students and employers.   

“In one sentence, it is a course where we try to deliver—to the extent we can—the experience of working on a project in a consulting firm,” says current course instructor Janel Miller. She and course co-creators CEE Professor Jeanne VanBriesen, and Professor of the Practice, Dave Nakles, have used their knowledge of consulting to make students’ experiences as authentic as possible. In just 15 weeks, groups of students write project proposals, develop and follow project timelines, work within teams, write progress reports, and present their work. 

An introduction to the cost structure and management practices of consulting firms is an important component because it helps students to understand the importance of tracking billable hours and producing quality products on schedule and within a set budget. Nakles notes that most graduating engineers are totally unaware of the cost and profit structure of a consulting firm, often resulting in frustration with, and lack of attention to, the administrative demands of the business. “New consulting engineers need to understand that even the best quality product, if over budget or late, will not be well received,” he says.          

On projects, students have the opportunity to interact with and work for real-world clients, who have included local nonprofit agencies, for-profit corporations, and CEE professors.  In all cases, students are expected to develop usable products and solutions by the end of the course. Professor VanBriesen says that one of the most interesting projects from last year’s class was for an internal client: CEE Associate Professor Kelvin Gregory.  

The project involved a new approach to manage and treat produced water from shale gas extraction.  Produced water contains salts—one of which is bromide, a commodity chemical that has a variety of uses.  “Kelvin wanted a group to determine if there is enough bromide in produced water that, using either a process he’d developed or a commercial process, you could extract and sell it,” says VanBriesen.  By the end of the semester, the students were able to show that both extraction methods were capable of producing enough bromide to make a profit.

A challenging project this term involves creating a design and implementation plan for a low-energy sewage treatment plant in a third world country.  The plant must be able to accommodate large population fluctuations and can only be built from materials available in the surrounding area.  VanBriesen says that this unusual set of constraints make this project representative of the kinds of problems professional engineers typically solve. “This is the way engineers work— you don’t just walk into a situation and assume that you can have as much money, concrete, and electricity as you would like,” she says.  

Working on these types of projects can give students an edge in interviews because it gives them a specific and highly relevant experience to discuss with prospective employers.  In fact, Miller says that some employers were so impressed with the course that when they called her for student recommendations, “they spent as much time talking about the course as they did the potential employee!” As a result, student interest in Sustainable Engineering Projects significantly increased after its first year.  

Miller and VanBriesen say the course is gratifying for the instructors as well. “ It’s a lot of work for us to teach this class, but I value seeing the transformation of the students,” says VanBriesen.  “We’re not just here to teach them content—you can read books for that.  As instructors, we’re here to help them become engineers. To see that happen over fifteen weeks is exciting.”