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UPOP: Educating Future Leaders in Engineering

by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti, Vol. 3, No. 1, January 2006

Quoting an MIT student, "It's one thing to know you need to network, to communicate, to have teamwork. It's quite different to have it shown in simple activities from real life."

Engineering education and practice. That's what the "P" in the MIT School of Engineering's Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) is all about: "p" for "practice." UPOP, an educational, mentoring, and internship program, brings the "real world" into engineering education by introducing sophomores to engineering practice. The intended result: engineering leaders.

Just as the long-established and well-known UROP program (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) engages our students in ways that significantly enrich their education, UPOP, now beginning its fifth year, broadens their engineering studies with the acquisition of new capabilities. Endeavoring to provide sophomores with the experiences and the understanding they'll need to transition into and succeed in the world outside the halls of academe, UPOP helps them develop important engineering, business, and interpersonal skills that will enable them to become leaders in industry, government, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions.

In a nutshell, UPOP epitomizes our beliefs about quality undergraduate engineering education – what it is, who’s involved, how we go about it – and we are committed to the value programs like UPOP can have on the nation and the future of engineering.

Who's involved in UPOP?

Answer: MIT faculty and staff, students, alumni, and industry

Both Engineering and Sloan School of Management faculty teach in UPOP; alumni and other working engineers serve as teaching assistants (trainers and mentors); students from every department in the School of Engineering and some from other majors enroll in the program; more than 100 companies from the United States and around the world employ UPOP students during the summer. The program has grown substantially from its initial enrollment of 70 students four years ago. Although the program is completely voluntary (not required by any major), 259 students registered for this year's UPOP – that's about one-fourth of all MIT's sophomores and nearly 40% of those majoring in engineering. Alumni are actively involved – as educators, mentors, and employers. (Thirty percent of summer placements result from alumni engagement.) Recently, one of our alumni, Armen Avanessians (EECS ’81), endorsed the UPOP vision by making a magnificent $1 million gift to support the leadership development components of the program.

How exactly does UPOP work?

Answer: The program has four phases:

  1. An intensive week of exciting, interactive classroom instruction and pre-employment "boot camp" during the January Independent Activities Period (IAP). Sessions are led by MIT faculty with the help of industry professionals, many of whom are MIT alumni;
  2. Extensive pre-employment workshops (spring seminars) on interviewing, networking, and career development, taught by MIT alumni and others;
  3. Ten to 12 weeks of summer employment to reinforce concepts previously taught and to experience engineering practice in action. Participating companies have included General Electric, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Lehman Brothers, Microsoft, and Texas Instruments, as well as smaller companies and government agencies such as NASA and the US Postal Service; and
  4. Meetings with other UPOP students, alumni, and faculty for personal reflection on the summer internship and on how UPOP concepts and experiences connect to the entire engineering curriculum and career choice.

So, what's the significance?

Answer: UPOP makes a critical difference to our students, to employers, and to the future directions of engineering education and practice.

Offering our students unique learning opportunities

To our participating students, UPOP provides:

  1. An awareness of the real world of engineering and how interns, as practicing engineers, can have an impact on it. UPOP encourages students to dream about what they'd like to do with their lives and helps them take action to achieve those dreams through real-world experience. We've had students work with heart surgeons, participate in companies working on drug development, develop brand management in the PGA Tour, design pool manufacturing with the application of lean production methods, work in large energy companies, take jobs around the world, and more.
  2. An introduction to the professional skills that they will need as practitioners, to go beyond classroom education and change the world. UPOP engages students in interactive workshops and activities that provide experience in working with people and offer "best of the best" teaching modules in areas such as data analysis and design specification.
  3. A network of people who can help UPOP students accelerate their success as they operate in the professional world. UPOP's structure, which integrates alumni and employers in all phases of the program, ensures that students have opportunities to meet and work with practicing engineers and managers at all levels throughout the year. (See "Alums teach engineering students 'real world' skills.")

In sum, UPOP offers unique learning opportunities for our students. In addition to chances to apply their technical skills in real-world work situations, UPOP students gain insight into economic, legal, organizational, and business realities of today. Each student who successfully completes the program develops a keen appreciation of the social, environmental, and ethical implications of engineering decision-making and an appreciation for how the decisions one makes as a professional engineering leader will impact our society. In these regards, UPOP is not a traditional internship program: it is a program of intellectual and social self-awareness in which students come to better understand their unique talents and skills and how best to utilize them.

Actively involving employers benefits them, as well as our students

Employers who work with UPOP are integral to the program's success. In fact, data collected from employers of MIT graduates, along with input from MIT alumni and students, provided the imperative to create the program. Based on the collected information, our Associate Dean, Professor Dick K.P. Yue, and I recognized that we needed to provide a greater emphasis on workforce skills, opportunities for internships, and experiences providing interaction with practitioners in order to most effectively complement the strong technical and problem-solving skills our students gain through an MIT education.

We work very closely with participating UPOP employers and have been gratified by the corporate response: over 150 companies have participated. We exercise strong quality controls on job opportunities for our students to ensure each internship meets our educational objectives. We also rely on input from employers and alumni to help us shape the program in ways to best meet industry workforce needs. In a recent survey, 97% of participating UPOP employers said they would again hire one of our students. We can certainly attribute this result in significant measure to employers' interest, support, and involvement in the continuing development of this program.

Influencing the future directions of engineering education and practice

I am very confident that the MIT School of Engineering will continue to lead in defining engineering education in the 21st century for both the nation and the world. Throughout its existence, MIT has always been an educational innovator, literally defining world-class engineering content by engaging our remarkable faculty, our remarkable alumni, and our equally remarkable students.

When I spoke before a Congressional subcommittee last May, I included in my testimony a statement about the critical need for improvements in undergraduate teaching and learning in our nation and used as an example the significant work MIT has done in our science and engineering programs. It is crucial to our future to retain a strong foundation in the fundamentals but also to find ways to make science and engineering education more exciting and provide more hands-on experience and context. By enhancing the development of professional "soft" skills that our students will need in engineering practice, within a curricular context of real-world case studies and active learning, UPOP stands as a stellar example for the future direction of engineering education. With UPOP, we're taking yet another step towards redefining what it means to be an MIT-educated engineer and assuring our students' success as future leaders and contributors to 21st-century organizations.