If you ask Ana Alexandrescu, director of OutreachISE, what industrial and systems engineering is, she will tell you to close your eyes and think of anything — she will bet that you weren’t thinking about breathing, but your body does it anyway.
“When systems work well, you don’t notice them,” Alexandrescu said. “You only start noticing them when they’re broken in some way.”
Industrial and system engineers, she said, solve problems. They think through processes and make optimal decisions for complex systems.
Two years ago, Luis Nunes Vicente, the industrial and systems engineering department chair, approached Alexandrescu about spearheading an outreach program for the department that would help the general public grow a better understanding of industrial and systems engineering and the work the people in this field do.
Alexandrescu said she began working on OutreachISE immediately and the program is now divided into two central missions: awareness projects and research projects.
The awareness side of the initiative includes a K-12 educational component, a podcast, first-year engineering networking events and community-building events such as graduation parties.
In local schools, Alexandrescu said she has given a couple of talks on industrial and systems engineering, also introducing different informative programs to help students understand what kind of work she does.
“We’re trying to develop modules that make it fun and exciting for a middle or high schooler to learn about systems — and use that as a way to help the next generation have a more inclusive idea about engineering,” Alexandrescu said.
The program also began a podcast, with the help of alumnus Chuck Coxhead, ‘88, where students interview members of the industrial and systems engineering community to share research or concepts. Currently, the team has five students creating 25- to 45-minute podcasts that are soon planned to be uploaded on YouTube.
Brooke Cannon, ‘24, one of the hosts and editors of the podcast, said episodes are structured like a conversation with guests more than a formal interview. She has spoken with professors and students in the department but said she hopes to also branch out to people outside Lehigh who are involved in both the academic and industry sides of industrial and systems engineering.
Cannon said she hopes to build up the outreach program’s social media presence and appeal to a wider audience once the podcast is up and running.
“The future of anything is the younger generation, so I think pushing that is really important to the major itself,” Cannon said.
Along with these awareness projects, OutreachISE also offers research opportunities for undergraduate students at any point in their Lehigh education — something Alexandrescu said is rare for young industrial and systems engineers to find.
Currently, the program has about 15 students working on projects in collaboration with five faculty members.
Two of these students are assisting Luis in the creation of a list of every alumni who attended Lehigh for their bachelor’s degree, master’s degree or Ph.D. in industrial and systems engineering since 2000. Luis said this list will be accessible to all of the department’s students and include alumni’s names and LinkedIn accounts to enhance networking accessibility.
This resource will become part of OutreachISE’s Alumni Academy, a program that currently brings alumni lecturers to classes and offers every sophomore-year industrial and systems engineering student the opportunity to be paired with an alumni mentor who works in the field.
These mentors, Luis said, can help students search for internships, give career advice, review their professional applications, or simply become a friend and additional set of experienced eyes as students progress toward finishing their degrees.
Long term, Alexandrescu said she hopes to expand both sides of the program. Specifically, she is interested in expanding the research opportunities to other colleges in the Lehigh Valley because it does not exist at other colleges in the area.
She also said she hopes the podcast grows to a point where they are regularly producing content that is engaging and available to a wide audience.
Alexandrescu said she has many goals, including expanding their website to share more information on fellowship and research opportunities related to industrial and systems engineering and also growing the podcast to regular, widespread content production and engagement — both of which would be open to students from all majors.
Most importantly, she hopes she can encourage more people to become involved in projects related to industrial and systems engineering.
“Systems engineering is a very effective toolbox that is versatile and really connects to prior backgrounds,” Alexandrescu said. “That sort of thinking, that many people can be engineers if given the necessary training and necessary tools, drove the way I think about the model for OutreachISE: providing opportunities into engineering for people.”
Luis said the outreach program touches everything in the department, meaning it focuses on building the future of the program as well as strengthening the existing campus presence.
“We want to show the world what ISE is about and convince people to join this beautiful field,” Luis said. “Of course, we want to solve problems because we are problem solvers.”