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Making Engineers Smart—and Savvy

A new MIT leadership program grafts social skills onto problem solvers

3 min read

Pushed by an entrepreneurial alumnus, MIT is determined to retire the stereotype of the antisocial engineer.

Come June, the Bernard M. Gordon–MIT Engineering Leadership Program will graduate its first class. The program is designed to give budding engineers skills that go beyond the technical—risk assessment, decision making, interpersonal relations, resourcefulness, and flexibility. Gordon, a successful inventor, made it all possible by donating US $20 million.

”Bernard’s complaint—shared by many industry professionals—is that engineering students he’s hired from top colleges have been very smart and can solve difficult problems but don’t have the perspective and street smarts needed to solve customers’ problems, bring in a project on budget and on schedule, and motivate others,” says Joel Schindall, an MIT professor of electrical engineering. Schindall, who has a 35-year aerospace and telecommunications industry background, runs the program with Edward Crawley, a professor of aeronautics, astronautics, and engineering systems.

Schindall says that new areas of physics and engineering, such as quantum mechanics and nanotechnology, require faculty with stronger scientific backgrounds, and the new hires have come at the expense of practicing engineers. That trend has drained the universities of role models. Meanwhile, social media have an egalitarian effect that’s transforming the way organizations operate. ”Today’s students tend to do things by consensus and don’t appreciate the strengths of a hierarchical system for deciding things,” says Schindall. ”You’re deemed too bossy if you try to direct things. But projects go downhill because [the students] haven’t organized them well.” The result is an entire generation of managers who don’t know how to get the most out of their engineers and engineers who don’t know how to make their innovative voices heard.

That was never a problem for Gordon himself. The MIT-trained electrical engineer developed the first fetal heart monitor and some of the earliest high-speed analog-to-digital converters. He founded and led Analogic Corp., an airport security and medical imaging firm in Peabody, Mass., and more recently founded the medical imaging firm NeuroLogica Corp., in Danvers, Mass. The money he gave MIT to start the leadership program is but a fraction of some $300 million he has committed to philanthropic and charitable causes.

Before the program rolled out in September of 2008 with an initial class of 16 (to be expanded to 30) competitively chosen juniors, Gordon, Crawley, and Schindall spent a year honing the curriculum with the help of professionals from industry, academia, and the military. The students, now seniors, spend roughly 12 hours a week with industry mentors and on in-class exercises that develop initiative, responsibility, decision making in the face of uncertainty, negotiation, advocacy, and ethics. One example: creating and executing a team plan to move a (mock) radioactive object from one side of a room to another without touching it. Less intensive versions of the course are available to other students.

Ultimately, Gordon, Crawley, and Schindall hope MIT can inspire such training at other universities, leading to more competitive products and the United States’ regaining its technical edge. Gordon has also started similar programs at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa; the University of California, San Diego; and Tufts and Northeastern universities, in Massachusetts.

Even before the first class departs for the world of work, the students have become more effective, fulfilled, and mature. ”Reports from employers with whom students interned this past summer were staggering,” Schindall says. ”One student, whose company raved about the new idea that she proposed and implemented, told us that without this program, she wouldn’t have had the courage to speak up about her ideas.”

About the Author

SUSAN KARLIN writes frequently about the intersection of entertainment and technology for IEEE Spectrum. Based in Los Angeles, she also contributes to The New York Times, Forbes, and Discover.

To Probe Further

For more information about the Bernard M. Gordon–MIT Engineering Leadership Program, see https://mit.edu/gordonelp.

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