MIT’s Justin Lai: Why Engineering Portfolios are Important

by Moses
Engineering Portfolios

Why engineering portfolios are important, from MIT’s Justin Lai

If you’re an engineer, you better start thinking about your engineering portfolio

We recently sat down with Justin Lai, Invention Education Associate with the Lemelson-MIT program, to talk about the need for engineering portfolios. Previously, Justin was a researcher in the MIT Ideation Lab.

As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Justin’s research looked at how people design through process and in practice, how to teach students to design products for people. Two significant teaching projects Justin helped create are 2.97 Designing for People (two week short course) and Discover Product Design (one week pre-orientation program).

How did you become such an advocate for student portfolios at MIT?

At the MIT Ideation Lab, under Prof. Maria Yang, I co-led new efforts to bring the product design process to students, especially earlier in their time at MIT.

With my colleague, Geoff Tsai, we interacted with many students who were interested in getting product design work experience. As portfolios are a must have for the application process, we realized there were no resources tailored for our Department of Mechanical Engineering students that would help them in the portfolio creation process.

Then, with the guidance of our advisor, along with Prof. David Wallace and Writing Across the Curriculum lecturers, Jane Connor and Jane Kokernak, Geoff and I developed a basic lecture workshop that outlined the beginning steps of making a engineering portfolio.

From your experience, what benefits do students get from creating an engineering portfolio?

Overall, the students are able to communicate about their past experiences more clearly, regardless of whether the actual portfolio is needed in a given application process. Also, once they’ve created their engineering portfolio they are able to respond to unexpected opportunities of displaying their work (there’s no replacement for being ready now). For any sort of creative work, the portfolio is an example of how they can creatively communicate. Finally, going through the portfolio process once will give them motivation to better document future projects.

What are your top tips for student on how to build an engineering portfolio?

  • Consider your audience. One version of your portfolio will not suit the needs of all your users.
  • Document now. Filter and sort later. Try to capture everything you can and don’t assume you’ll be able to go back to re-document; you often won’t have time.
  • Develop a workflow to archive and retrieve the raw materials of each project.
  • Design on paper first.
  • Get feedback often. It’s the easiest way to discover what isn’t clear

What excites you most about Seelio?

Our main message to our students has been about the process of making a portfolio—that the process is more important than getting bogged down in how to use specific design tools. We were excited to see this platform that isn’t focused on a particular industry, like ones that typically ask for portfolios (graphic design, architecture, industrial design), and allows you to get your projects displayed quickly.

Take a look at some engineering portfolios from current MIT Students: