Geeks and Chiefs: Engineering Education at MIT

author: Yossi Sheffi, Center for Transportation and Logistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Jan. 6, 2014,   recorded: April 2007,   views: 1598

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With wit and candor -- including some jabs at engineering school traditionalists --Yossi Sheffi questions the future value of the current MIT engineering education, and proposes an alternative.

In days past, engineers answered the call to invent gizmos, gadgets and complicated devices, but in our time, they must increasingly respond to challenges involving complex systems. “Process design is where many of tomorrows’ challenges lie,” says Sheffi. How to fashion a global supply chain, for instance, that consistently ensures items are available on time, on the shelf, at a low cost, a chain that is responsive to external demand and shocks –this is difficult, he says. But it is this kind of know-how that provides a competitive advantage. Walmart, says Sheffi, “didn’t come up with new exciting stuff but they dominate the market…through process, not product innovation.”

The kind of engineer who can succeed and lead in this global market -- one that is increasingly fed by graduates of schools in China and India, notes Sheffi – may no longer be the type educated at MIT. The Institute is top-rated, but is mired in an approach “fit for mid-20th century manufacturing-based society,” and is now “resting on past laurels.” Yet, why change, Sheffi ponders. “We are #1. Rah rah.” But look at MIT’s School of Engineering “among friends,” he suggests, and you must admit there’s “significant calcification, duplication and conservatism.” He finds multiple fluid mechanics and thermodynamics courses among the various departments. “How many courses have ‘control’ in their name? 228!” Students are a key barometer of this stodginess, says Sheffi. There’s been a 20% decline in engineering graduates in the last eight years.

So MIT must shift gears, and embrace two basic missions: continuing to produce world-class experts (geeks) – practicing engineers who design complicated systems – and generating world-class leaders (chiefs), who will deploy their technological expertise in the real-world. “My hypothesis is that the great leaders of the next century will have to have a technological background, because we’re going toward a technologically innovative society.” These leaders will be problem definers as much as problem solvers, and, says Sheffi, “either we or China will educate them.”

Sheffi suggests a School of Engineering-wide undergraduate program, where all the fundamentals courses are rethought and taught differently. This means sacrificing problem sets for case studies, and “learning how a subject fits into the grand scheme of things.” MIT should integrate humanities with engineering subjects, ensuring undergraduates understand business, ethics, legal language, environmental concerns, organization and process design. There should also be a formal leadership workshop, required time in a foreign culture and along the lines of the European Union, a five-year educational model. If MIT builds it, others will follow, assures Sheffi.

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