Brand New Day for SDM

The Universe Within.

By Amy MacMillan, ESD Communications Assistant
January 28, 2005

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.

Indeed, this year’s System Design and Management class may be the most primed and prepared class yet, says 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," Hale says.

Prof. John Carroll leads the new SDM class through a series of entertaining leadership exercises. (Photo by Amy MacMillan)

Although the unique distance-learning degree granting graduate program has been around since 1997, the class of 2005 has benefited from the strong marketing force and information nights held in the Boston area this past year. The curriculum is ever evolving, and the modifications made this year will bolster an already-sturdy set of SDM courses.

With this year’s progression, it’s as if there’s a brand new version of SDM, and it’s reflected in the size of the class (62), the students’ diversity, and the subjects they are exposed to just in the first few weeks of the rigorous January session. The number of females in the class has tripled from last year, and the class also consists of two African Americans, 14 Asians and 12 South Asians. More than half the class already has a master’s degree, and seven have Ph.Ds. This year, about 60 percent of students are self-supported, and 40 percent are fully or partially company sponsored. The average age is 33.

The intensive marketing push will continue for the 2006 SDM class. For the first time, information nights will be held outside of Cambridge – in locations such as Silicon Valley, Upstate New York, and Detroit.

Hale says the goal is to increase the number of industry partners, and to emphasize why the SDM program is special. Today, there are other schools that offer distance education, but, "We are still the only one that combines a top-flight management school with a top-ranked engineering school," he says.

Course Alterations

This year, several courses in the Sloan School of Management have been tailored to better serve the engineering population that comprises SDM. For instance, the traditional behavioral organization class might focus on an Operations workforce with unionized labor, but the newly refined SDM course is targeted toward future leaders who need to motivate technically bright and creative engineers. Some courses have been shortened to half-semester length, so this year’s fellows can take more subjects.

January Program

Meanwhile, courses taught during the January session encourage students to think independently. In his Introduction to System Architecture, Professor Edward Crawley emphasizes, "This is a course in how to think, not what to think." He also tells the fellows to start to think holistically about the architecture of common things. The System Architecture course is a good example of the kind of curriculum innovation that SDM has exhibited from its inception. Students are given the first one-third of this core SDM course, which is then completed in the fall of their first year.

The introductory January session is meant to be demanding, with two design challenges, a full course in The Human Side of Technology, and System Architecture, plus lectures, seminars, and team-building activities. "This ‘boot camp’ phase has been very challenging," admits Jeanne Kesapradist, 31, a self-sponsored student from Andover, Mass. "The system architecture class has exceeded my expectations, and I’m pleasantly surprised that we are taking a rigorous approach to systems architecture." Kesapradist says the SDM message of leading engineers – as opposed to leaving engineering – has really resonated with her.

Kesapradist, who has degrees in both physics and materials science engineering from MIT, once worked in conjunction with an MIT team that won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001.

Spiros Lekkakos, also 31, a captain in the Hellenic Air Force, agrees that Crawley’s class has been challenging. He was released from the Air Force for a year-and-a-half to complete the SDM program on campus. "It’s been interesting, and I’m very excited," he says.

Other students in the program are duly impressed so far. "I think it’s been outstanding," says Jason Slagle, 30, an aerospace engineer with GE Aircraft Engines in Cincinnati, OH . Slagle says he was attracted to the SDM program because he’s pursuing a technical leadership career path. "This program seemed like a really good fit. You get a good mix of systems engineering skills and management skills."

SDM is known for attracting a wide array of talent and ambition. Kevin Brown, 31, just returned from eight years of active duty as a captain in the United States Army. The expeditionary combat veteran was deployed to Iraq in April of 2003, and returned to U.S. soil this past August. While in Iraq, Brown commanded a division that helped rebuild the major city infrastructures – including hospitals, schools, traffic, and sewage systems – in Baghdad . Signing onto the SDM program was an obvious choice for Brown, who is self-sponsored. "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."

The January session wraps up this week. Distance students will return to their homes where they will take classes remotely, returning to campus in the middle of each semester for three-to-five days. All students who complete the program will receive a Master of Science Degree in Engineering and Management.

A Walk on the Wild Side with the Class of 2005

In an icebreaker exercise to his Introduction to Leadership class, Prof. John Carroll asked each student to list an "amazing" autobiographical fact, as well as future leadership aspirations. The class of 2005 features many students with unique talents including:

  • One who can build balloon animals.
  • One who can roll his tongue over completely.
  • One who can clean 60 fish in an hour.
  • One who can subsist "solely on Burger King food and beer."
  • One who can quote any action sequence from every James Bond movie ever made.
  • One who can fall asleep at any time, anywhere.
  • One who runs triathlons.
  • One who is afraid of heights, but jumps out of airplanes nonetheless!

Leadership aspirations range from wanting to be "leader of the free world" and curing cancer, to simply using less profanity.