MIT program teaches engineers to be leaders

While the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is internationally known for educating scientists, engineers and mathematicians, the university hopes to add one more title to that list: leader.

Established last spring, the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program teaches its students the importance of innovation. The selective program, which accepts roughly 25 junior and senior students, was funded by a $20 million donation from MIT alumnus Bernard Gordon (H’92).

On the program’s Web site, Dr. Charles Vest, the President of the National Academy of Engineering, states that he believes the program “is an example of how MIT is working to empower today’s engineering undergraduates with critical leadership skills that will help them to become tomorrow’s engineering leaders.”

According to Bruce Mendelsohn, the program’s director of communications and outreach, most of the problems recent MIT graduates encounter in the workplace don’t involve their knowledge of engineering, but rather interpersonal relations.

“People believe that if you take 10 smart people and let them work without a boss, something is going to happen. But the fact is that someone needs to be in charge,” Mendelsohn said.

Like Mendelsohn, Tanya Goldhaber, a senior at MIT who is currently participating in the program, believes that graduates from even the most elite universities often enter the “real world” without knowing how to work with others.

“We’re so used to functioning in a group with incredibly competent people,” Goldhaber said. “In industry, you might be on a team where some of the members may not even be engineers.”

With the goal of training undergraduates to work cooperatively in vastly diverse groups, the leadership program consists of lectures at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a weekly lab.

According to Goldhaber, the seniors enrolled in the program work together to plan the lab activities for the juniors participating. At the end of each lab, the students review each group’s performance and provide constructive feedback.

Some Tufts students see the value of such a program.

“The whole purpose of a college education is to prepare you for the real world. Since most graduates won’t be working in isolation, one of the most important skills undergraduates can take away is how to work with people that have different personality types and working strategies,” sophomore Stephen Meno said.

Sophomore Brian Sheehan stressed that, to be successful, engineers need to be able to make their ideas accessible to others.

“Engineers need to be able to explain to the average person what they’re doing because most people don’t have an advanced background in science,” he said.

According to Goldhaber, a major objective of the program is to teach students how to finish projects under strict time limits.

“The entire academic system is based on partial credit. You need to be able to make some decisions and forego some creativity [because] there isn’t partial credit in real life” Goldhaber said.

The program is unique in that it is designed to evolve over time.

“We’re constantly changing the curriculum and we have the flexibility to change the activities that we offer based on trends or emerging science or leadership,” Mendelsohn said.

MIT isn’t the only school focusing on engineering leadership. This September, Tufts’ School of Engineering received a $40 million donation from Bernard Gordon to further leadership studies.

According to Linda Abriola, dean of the school of engineering, her faculty and staff are in the midst of preparing a proposal for the leadership studies curriculum.

“We’re going to be working over the next year to develop a plan for expanding [the] engineering leadership program,” Abriola said.

Dean Abriola is confident that Tufts’ emphasis on a well-rounded liberal arts education gives graduates an advantage in the workplace.

“We like to think that our students are really successful,” Abriola said. “Our students tend to rise to leadership positions because they have a broad educational background and the ability to convince people that what they’re proposing makes sense.”
 

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