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Distance-learning program launched with design exercise

Students in the inaugural class of MIT's new System Design and Management (SDM) program got a taste of real-world challenges at a chilly outdoor exercise on Briggs Field last week.

On their first day (Monday, Jan. 6), the students formed six teams for their first assigned group design project: devising a means of transmitting information (35 pages of students' resumes) across a 100-meter MIT soccer field wihout using human power. The rules aimed to simulate the conditions of two Bosnian villages isolated by a mine field and wanting to exchange information. Designs tested on Friday included a line attached to spools and helium balloons. In another game that started this week, students will try to design and organize an auto industry to meet the unique needs of the new Eastern European market.

The program for professional engineers is offered jointly by the School of Engineering and Sloan School of Management. Using a hybrid on-campus/off-campus approach to education, it is designed to return students to their engineering organizations prepared to assume positions as technically grounded senior managers, directors of engineering or chief technology officers.

"This type of program is the wave of the future," Dr. Vest said at the students' orientation last week. "Given the rapid pace of change in technical and scientific knowledge, most working professionals need to seek out new paths of continuous learning simply to stay current. Yet, as all of us know, just staying current is not enough in today's workplace. Those who wish to be leaders need to know how to thrive in a constantly changing, complex environment. This means becoming continual learners-as individuals and as organizations-bringing an active, systems approach to new problems and new challenges as they arise."

The two-year SDM distance-learning program begins with an intensive month-long January session at MIT. Distance-learning students then return to their work sites, where for 20 months they take MIT classes part-time using videoconferencing, videotape and Web-assisted instruction. They then return to MIT for a final semester in residence. Collaborative projects are done remotely from different work sites, reflecting the way work teams have now "gone global." The curriculum includes courses in systems architecture, systems engineering and systems and project management; disciplinary design electives; and fundamental course work in engineering and management.


Another option permits students to complete the program in 13 months of full-time study at MIT. All students earn a Master of Science in Engineering and Management degree. The inaugural class consists of 27 distance-learning students and nine on campus. On average, they are 33 years old and have seven years of work experience.

Companies are motivated to be SDM partners because the program allows them to send fast-track engineers they don't want to lose-and cannot spare-for MBA training coupled with the latest in systems learning. Eastman Kodak and United Technologies Corp. are sustaining enterprise partners, together enrolling more than 20 students. More than 10 other companies are sponsoring SDM students.

"In the past, technical innovation by itself was often a singular requisite for business success," said Thomas L. Magnanti, SDM program co-director and George Eastman Professor of Management Science. "Increasingly, however, technical excellence by itself will no longer suffice; to prosper, corporations must acquire a systems perspective that brings together the best thinking of both engineering and management. SDM is exciting because it aims to address this need squarely, and it seeks to use the best of modern technology to make systems education available to a broad audience of practicing engineers." The other director is Professor Edward F. Crawley of aeronautics and astronautics.

The SDM curriculum and program design is a result of more than four years of market studies and collaboration with industry leaders in aerospace, automotive, and telecommunications companies and government representatives. It builds on an 11-student pilot program that was offered last year.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 15, 1997.

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