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Yes, Engineers Do That!

Why I believe in UPOP.

At an IAP workshop several years ago, an engineering professor leading a session on product development gave students a homework assignment: to come up with an idea for a product and survey people about the attributes or features they would like it to have. While explaining in detail what such a survey might entail, the professor was interrupted by a bright-eyed 18-year-old aspiring engineer: “Professor, do engineers really do that?!” Without a pause, the reply came back: “Yes–good engineers do that!”

Dick K. P. Yue ’74, SM ’76, ScD ’80, is the associate dean of engineering and a professor of ocean and mechanical engineering at MIT. He is the founding faculty director of MIT’s UPOP program.

That exchange underscores the very real need for such workshops, which the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, or UPOP, has run since 2002. Through the IAP workshop, summer internships, and other activities, UPOP, which now enrolls some 250 MIT engineering sophomores each year, helps prepare students for the realities and challenges of engineering practice. Along the way, it also helps dispel fallacies like the all-too-common belief “I am the engineer designing this thing, so I know best what it should be.”

UPOP executive director Chris Resto ‘99 and I have encountered many such misconceptions about what a good engineer does to be truly successful. Here are some others that we have tried to design UPOP to address:

“The world is all about engineering.” Half of those helping with UPOP workshops are from the Sloan School faculty, and our students are often amazed and then appreciative as they learn about concepts from the world outside engineering–creating and capturing value, Porter’s five forces that influence business competitiveness, organizational dynamics … .

“Differential equations (or circuit design or mechanics) is hard; the other stuff is soft, and soft stuff is easy.” In UPOP IAP workshops, we make students practice the “soft” skills they’ll need to be good engineers, such as communicating effectively and working well in teams. Through role playing and team games, they quickly realize how important these skills are to their success–and are often surprised by how difficult it is to master them. These lessons are reinforced when they show up for their UPOP summer internships.

“Everyone thinks as I do (and if not, they should).” Students in the workshop learn the falsity of this belief the hard way when they role-play totally different people and have to communicate with each other to reach a difficult team goal or decision. When they share their summer internship experiences in fall UPOP roundtable events, they often reflect on how this misconception hinders successful communication and teamwork.

“If my work (or my product) is good, why does it matter how I present itor myself?” When we visit students during their summer internships, one of their most common observations is how important it is to present themselves well: the boss’s perception of the entire team’s effort over a 12-week span often boils down to the success of a 15-minute presentation. Our advice to dress “smartly” for work turns out to matter a lot more than they had realized.

“It is up to them to figure out how smart I am.” Well, employers often don’t. To prepare students for this reality, UPOP runs mock interview sessions with the help of many alumni volunteers. Students are often completely surprised by the feedback they get, and many come back for more help.

“Networking is for the birds; I don’t need it.” One of the required UPOP spring events is the “painless networking” seminar and “mocktail” evening led by a famous etiquette consultant and attended by dozens of alumni volunteers and potential employers. The students also keep internship journals, in which they are required to describe networking encounters both inside and outside their immediate work groups. After complaining about the requirement at first, many students later write that they wish they had taken time to network with more people during their internships.

UPOP makes a strong statement about engineering education by giving undergraduates exposure to real-world engineering practice. I believe in UPOP, because a realistic understanding of what a good engineer does prepares students to be successful. “Yes, good engineers do that!”

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