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Western engineering student Kathleen McAllister is taking a new certificate in engineering leadership and innovation that includes business courses at Ivey. Professor Darren Meister’s mandate is to strengthen the natural bond between business and engineering.

geoff robins The Globe and Mail

Kathleen McAllister, a third-year chemical engineering student at the University of Western Ontario, is looking forward to a career where she can design new products and processes. But she also wants to acquire business skills to take her ideas to market.

At Western, she is able to pursue both goals through a new academic collaboration between the university's engineering faculty and the Ivey Business School – fortuitously just across the road from each other at the London, Ont., campus. While studying engineering, she is also taking a new certificate in engineering leadership and innovation that includes business courses and case studies at Ivey.

"As engineers, we always have ideas and like to create things," she said. "But even if you have a great idea, it doesn't mean it will get adopted. Having the business side really lets you learn how to get those ideas adopted."

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Joint degrees and other academic partnerships between business schools and the rest of campus used to be rare, but not now. With employers increasingly keen to hire graduates with technical and managerial skills, on-campus co-operation is on the rise.

"There has been an acceleration, no question," says Peter Pauly, vice-dean, academic at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. "There is a need for all professionals to be broader – to have a skill set that allows individuals to function not just in their primary domain but to span different domains."

To a growing list of joint and combined degrees – first with law in 1996 – Rotman recently added a combined degree with U of T's Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. The first cohort taking the doctor of pharmacy/master of business administration are pharmacy students completing their second year. If accepted by Rotman, they would begin their MBA in September of 2016.

Prof. Pauly says the response of students to combined degrees, in general, is positive.

"They all recognize it opens up new opportunities to them," he says. "The world out there is looking for talent that is not narrow, but broad."

At Western, Ivey business professor and engineering faculty member Darren Meister embodies the trend of academic cross-fertilization. Last year, he was named the inaugural holder of the John M. Thompson Chair in Engineering Leadership for a five-year term, with a mandate to strengthen the natural bond between business and engineering.

Ivey and the engineering faculty already offer an undergraduate dual degree – honours business administration and a bachelor of engineering science – that students complete in five years. Along with the new certificate introduced last September, Ivey and the engineering faculty now are developing dual degrees at the master level.

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"We see interdisciplinarity as a good thing, so how do we break down the barriers that are holding people back from what they would like to do?" asked Western engineering dean Andy Hrymak. Having Prof. Meister with a foot in both camps, added the dean, is "critical" to his faculty's efforts to equip students for a changing economy.

"The trend very much is that the education component is enhanced if you put the appropriate business courses alongside the engineering courses," said Dr. Hrymak.

For his part, Prof. Meister observed that business and engineering students benefit from working together in the same classroom. "They see problems from radically different perspectives," he said, with engineers focused on design issues and business students looking at ways to bring an innovation to market.

Historically, business schools had an arms' length relationship with the rest of campus.

"The trend [now] is much more collaborative," observed Saul Klein, dean of the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria. "Business schools have realized there is a lot they can contribute as well as a lot that they can gain."

His school offers joint master degrees with UVic's faculties of law and engineering. For the master of global business, Gustavson turns to the university's languages department to teach Mandarin and French, for example, to business students.

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Beyond dual degrees, Dr. Klein cites initiatives in which Gustavson's Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation works with researchers elsewhere on campus.

Those relationships, in turn, help define his school's strengths as it seeks to stand out in a competitive market. Gustavson's sustainability focus, for example, fits with the university's ambition to be an internationally-recognized campus that tackles issues of consequence "to people, places and the planet."

On campus, as in industry, breaking down the barriers between disciplines is seen as a positive development.

"There is a recognition that nobody has perfect knowledge and understanding," said Dr. Klein. "Being able to collaborate allows everyone to benefit."

In some cases, cross-campus co-operation is a tool to improve job prospects for graduates.

For example, McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton and the department of biochemistry and biomedical sciences introduced a new program last year for undergraduates in health science to pursue their bachelor degree and a master-level program in biomedical discovery commercialization at the same time.

The idea is to teach scientists the language of business so they can work in industry or start new ventures of their own, since just a fraction of PhD scientists go into academia.

For Western's Ms. McAllister, still weighing her career options, learning about business as she trains to become an engineer is the equivalent of opening another door.

"Getting those extra [business] skills would be very beneficial for a lot of engineers," she says.

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