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Scientists and engineers often are portrayed as socially inept geeks who rarely stray from their equations or whiteboards.
Some believe they're doomed to spend their lives isolated within their own departments because they can't master the networking skills necessary to advance their careers.
But at Kettering University in Flint, Mich., science and engineering students aren't buying into that stereotype. While they haven't started hitting the golf course to make valuable connections, they've found another way to network.
It's called a grill.
Every week about 34 science, math and engineering students armed with marinades, steaks, seafood and even pancake batter gather on campus around a customized grill that an engineering student built and designed. Once the grill is fired up, the smells that waft over the campus on a Thursday night serve as a powerful attractor to faculty and students.
That gives the students a chance to interact with others while comfortably focused on grilling.
"Grilling more or less fits our style. We're into fire," says Justin Arnold, a biochemistry senior and president of the Grilling Club. "We're always trying to see who can start a fire the best."
The club began last year and usually attracts students beyond engineering, giving science and math nerds a chance to hone their conversational skills away from the classroom that dominates so much of their time.
"We've broken away from the social-networking craze," Arnold says. "We're out there talking to people."
The club tries to be creative by having themes for their cookouts, such as grilling seafood during Discovery Channel's Shark Week. It also tries to educate members during meetings, and some recent subjects have included basic marinades, food safety and a lecture from the fire marshal on fire safety.
Arnold says Kettering always has emphasized networking among students, but the grilling group has offered its members a way to practice their socialization and networking skills while being in the more relaxed environment of a cookout.
"The club isn't something that consumes a huge amount of time, but it's really something to look forward to," he says. "It's one hour during the week to relax and have fun, and you don't feel so stressed."
The club has developed such a good reputation for its culinary skills that other groups now request its services. Arnold says members try to give back by cooking for charity events and even loaned their skills to feed the Greek Honor Society.
"I get so many emails from groups asking us to cook for them. It's really neat," Arnold says.
Meeting students from other schools has given members a chance to learn about other classes and professors and enabled members to connect with people they might not otherwise meet, he says. Such skills will help them in the professional world.
"I think clubs like this really help bridge the gaps. It helps make us more marketable because we're learning how to interact with different people," Arnold says. "For me, it's also given me a lot of management skills because I'm learning how to get different people to mesh well."
Beverly Kaye, a career and networking expert, says the students' grilling idea is a smart one because they have found a way to connect that makes sense for them. Too many times people get turned off at the concept of networking because they see it as manipulating or using others.
"Networking is really about what you can do for other people," she says. "The grilling shows that."
One piece of advice: Share more of who they meet and what they learn with other club members so they can really learn and benefit from the new connections, Kaye says.
"In the world they will be moving into upon graduation, they'll find not everyone is like them and they will have to learn to have a feel for others around them," she says.
Anita Bruzzese can be reached c/o Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va. 22107.