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MIT urged to educate 'geeks' and 'chiefs'

Resilience is important to Professor Yossi Sheffi, best-selling author of "The Resilient Enterprise: Overcoming Vulnerability for Competitive Advantage." An international expert in supply chain management, Sheffi recently turned his attention to resilience in engineering education at MIT and its impact on U.S. competitiveness.

"Southeast Asia produces 10 times more engineers annually than the U.S., many comparable to our highest quality professionals. If MIT and other U.S. schools continue to generate a large number of 'traditional' engineers, trained for a manufacturing economy, then engineering will become a commodity," Sheffi warned a standing-room-only audience at the sixth annual Charles L. Miller lecture.

Co-sponsored by MIT's Engineering Systems Division (ESD) and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), the series is named for Miller, who was MIT CEE department head from 1962 to 1969. Miller died in 2000.

Sheffi, professor of engineering systems and civil and environmental engineering and director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, referenced recent reports by the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Engineering to build his argument for how to address the "Sputnik challenge" of the 21st century. He identified the current challenge as the design and operation of complex systems aimed at health care provision, education, security and energy independence.

He said the important challenge is to educate engineers who can go beyond designing complicated technical systems (such as airplanes). They need to be able to design complex systems of which new technologies are part (like air transportation systems), where technology intertwines with environmental, political, economic, managerial and other systems. These engineers will lead complex systems design, whose objectives include flexibility, compatibility and safety.

Sheffi advocated a two-pronged approach for MIT: continuing to educate world-class technical experts--the geeks--to be practicing engineers who design complicated systems, while preparing world-class leaders--the chiefs--to design complex systems.

The new curriculum may include engineering and social science classes taught jointly by the School of Engineering (SOE) and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; engineering courses with embedded managerial concepts and case studies taught by SOE and the Sloan School of Management; mandatory studies abroad; and a leadership curriculum. (He referenced the leadership course offered by ESD's logistics program as an example.)

Sheffi acknowledged the many hurdles to implementing a new curriculum alongside "MIT Classic"; he asserted, however, that MIT presently has an unprecedented opportunity. A new president, new senior administration and new incoming deans may provide the opportunity for profound changes.

In concluding the event, ESD Professor Daniel Roos called on the audience to "work together to ensure that this issue gets exposure--and action--within MIT now."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 16, 2007 (download PDF).

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