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January session brings remote students to campus for a month

They come from the front lines of Iraq, the Hellenic Air Force, and the hallowed halls of MIT itself. They're worldly, but not world-weary.

This year's System Design and Management class may be the most primed and prepared class yet, according to Pat Hale, director of the SDM Fellows Program. "They are very enthusiastic, have a clear sense of what SDM is, and why it's the right degree for them," he said.

Although the unique distance-learning degree granting graduate program has been around since 1997, the curriculum is evolving. The modifications made this year will bolster an already sturdy set of SDM courses.

"We are still the only primarily distance education program that combines a top-flight management school with a top-ranked engineering school," Hale said. In addition to its distance education program, SDM also offers full- and part-time on-campus options.

The new version of SDM is reflected in the size of the class (62), the students' diversity, and the subjects they learn in the first few weeks of the rigorous January session. The number of women in the class tripled since last year, more than half of the class hold master's degrees, and seven have Ph.Ds. About 60 percent of them are self-supported; 40 percent are fully or partially company-sponsored. The average age is 33.

This year, several courses in the Sloan School of Management have been tailored to better serve the engineering population that comprises SDM. For instance, a traditional behavioral organization class might focus on an operations workforce with unionized labor, but the newly refined SDM course is geared toward leaders who need to motivate engineers.

Students come to MIT for an intensive January session, then return home to continue with their education remotely. Courses taught during January encourage students to think independently. "This is a course in how to think, not what to think," said Professor Edward Crawley about his Introduction to System Architecture course.

The January session is demanding, with two design challenges, a full course in the Human Side of Technology, and Crawley's system architecture, plus lectures, seminars and team-building activities. "This boot camp phase has been very challenging," admits Jeanne Kesapradist, 31, a student from Andover, Mass. Kesapradist, who has degrees in both physics and materials science engineering from MIT, once worked in conjunction with the MIT team that won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2001.

Spiros Lekkakos, also 31, a captain in the Hellenic Air Force, was released from the Air Force temporarily for the SDM program. "It's been interesting, and I'm very excited," he said.

Other students include an aerospace engineer with GE Aircraft Engines in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a United States Army captain who returned from Iraq in August. While there, 31-year-old Kevin Brown commanded a division that helped rebuild the major Baghdad infrastructure--hospitals, schools, traffic and sewage systems. "Having tried to rebuild the infrastructure of a 6 million-population city, I know the importance of a systems approach to solving problems on a very large scale," Brown said.

Distance students returned to their homes following the January session, where they will take classes remotely, returning to campus in the middle of each semester for three-to-five days. Students who complete the program receive an S.M. in engineering and management.

A version of this article ran on the Systems Design and Management web site,

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 9, 2005 (download PDF).

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