Engineering law course teaches students law basics for their careers

11/28/2016 Emily Scott

In his Engineering Law course, Joe Barich teaches law to engineering students in a unique way.

Written by Emily Scott

Joe Barich
Joe Barich

In his Engineering Law course, Joe Barich teaches law to engineering students in a unique way. 

Barich realizes that patents, contracts, and intellectual property might be difficult concepts for an engineering student to grasp, but operating systems and computer programming might not be.

This is why Barich compares seemingly different topics like these when he teaches Engineering Law, a course that gives engineering students a background in basics of the law.

“I think in the modern world, aspects of the law creep into just about anything that you’re going to do,” says Barich, who has been teaching the course since 2010.

As an engineering undergraduate at Illinois, Barich took an engineering law course, which at the time was somewhat out of his comfort zone. He now is a practicing attorney in patent and intellectual property. With his background in both engineering and law, Barich is aware of the ways that engineers and lawyers think differently.

The goal of the course is to give students a background in aspects of the law that could affect and enhance their careers as engineers.

They start with learning about the U.S. Constitution and the court system, which Barich puts into engineering terms by comparing it to a computer’s operating system.

“It’s the system of rules under which the country is supposed to operate,” Barich says. “The first thing you need to know is how the operating system works. Then you can see how the individual ‘programs’ potentially interact with that operating system.”

Barich uses analogies like this to compare legal terms to terms that engineering students might be able to grasp more quickly.

Contracts can also potentially play a big part in an engineer’s career. But when reading a contract, an engineer would need to know what should be included in addition to what might be missing.

“It’s like trying to design something and you don’t put in a safety system, because you don’t know anything about safety systems,” Barich says.

For teaching purposes, Barich compares reading a contract to computer programming.

“I tell them to pretend it’s a program,” he says. “They need to read for every word, every comma, and pay attention to everything.”

Students also learn about intellectual property and patents. One of his students, Amy Doroff , was able to take what she learned in the course and apply it to her career.
At a summer internship, Doroff invented a tool that solved a problem at John Deere’s Harvester Works Factory, where she interned one summer. She was later awarded the Dan Levengood Excellence in Ergonomics Award for this project and was recognized by the company.

Barich says this is a prime example of the importance in learning intellectual property law.

“If she hadn’t taken my class, (Doroff) wouldn’t have done any of that,” he says. “She would’ve done the invention, but it would’ve been a nice little invention, and nobody would know about it ever.” 

The fact that Doroff was able to take her own invention and capitalize on it allowed her to be recognized for her work. Barich says this shows the importance of understanding intellectual property, something he says many engineers do not realize.

“Many of the engineers that are sitting in the class don’t really think that the things that I’m presenting are things that they’re going to use right away,” Barich says. “But here’s somebody, not even graduated at the time, and it’s huge.” 

Barich teaching class
Barich teaching class

Barich believes the engineering law course is a good fit for ISE.

“I think [the department] has an advantage because this department focuses on a number of fundamental, real life skills that can help you be more effective as an engineer,” he says. “I think ISE has an opportunity to get ahead at a lot of things at the intersection of engineering and law.”

In education, Barich says that being able to capitalize on technology in a business context is crucial, and he believes ISE does that best.

He believes the recognition of the value of the business aspects of technology’s function in society is becoming even more important in today’s world.

“I think every single engineer in the university should have to take my class,” Barich says. “It’s that important for your actual career.” 

Joe Barich.
Joe Barich.

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This story was published November 28, 2016.