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Working Class
The Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program lends engineering students business savvy
By Lisa Scanlon

When Mark Herschberg ’95, SM ’97, started his first job outside MIT, he was an excellent coder, he admits, but “not very business savvy.” Herschberg explains: “MIT students, we’re used to talking to other engineers. Problem is, when you put an engineer in front of a sales guy, [the engineer] starts spouting numbers, and five minutes later the sales guy’s eyes glaze over.” Herschberg was lucky to land at a company that helped him develop professional skills, but he suspected that many of his classmates weren’t as fortunate. So when he heard in late 2001 that the School of Engineering was starting a new internship program to help students better navigate the working world, he was eager to help out.

Currently in its fourth year, the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) consists of four parts. It begins during Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January with an intensive weeklong course taught by engineering and Sloan School faculty—with some help from alumni like Herschberg and other industry professionals. That is followed up by a series of seminars throughout the spring semester on topics ranging from interview skills to how to network. The centerpiece of the program is a 10- to 12-week summer internship. Finally, when students return in the fall, they gather for a post-internship reflective meeting.

Christopher Resto ’99, UPOP’s director, says the Introduction to Engineering Practice Workshop in January breaks the participants into groups of eight to 10 students, each facilitated by an alum. Within these groups, students participate in role-playing activities and games that address topics such as designing with the customer in mind and managing interpersonal conflict. One role-playing exercise has students working at a company that may outsource their jobs. The students must defend their positions before managers, including engineers, high-level management, sales staffers, and accountants. Afterward, alumni talk about their experiences in similar situations.

After IAP, students apply for internships, many using MonsterTrak, a website that connects college students with employers. Meanwhile, UPOP staff and alumni volunteers help students polish their résumés, offer advice, and conduct mock interviews. So far, UPOP students have been hired by some 200 companies or organizations, from such giants as IBM and Microsoft to four-person biotech startups. During the summer, UPOP staff and alumni volunteers visit the employers to see how the students are doing and to make sure that the students are having an educational, worthwhile experience.

Christopher Farm ’06 is a typical UPOP student. Although he was confident he could secure an internship on his own, the UPOP course content convinced him to participate in the program. “I knew UPOP could help me with skills I didn’t develop fully in high school or here,” he says. Those skills included public speaking and making presentations. Through a career fair, Farm found an internship at Procter and Gamble, where he helped design a better container for Pringles.

More than 200 students—comprising nearly 40 percent of sophomores in the School of Engineering—are participating in the program this year. But Resto hopes that even more will participate in future years. “Our philosophy is that even if students want to become university professors, it’s still important for them to appreciate practical experience,” he says. “We think we’re making a statement about undergraduate engineering education.”

Alumni who might be interested in participating in UPOP can contact Resto at cresto@mit.edu.

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