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Vol. 3, No. 5, September 2006

Welcome to Engineering Our World, the MIT School of Engineering's free bulletin for alumni and friends. Updated six times yearly, Engineering Our World describes some of the work we're doing at the leading edge of technological change, providing news and articles of the School's major initiatives.Past Issues

"Black nail" engineering – the "real" stuff

by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti

I'm sure that all of you who are practicing engineers have frequently encountered stereotypical views of the profession. The School itself also faces a stereotype about engineering schools. I often encounter conflicting views, even from alumni that: (1) MIT, like many major engineering schools, is stodgy, no longer asks our students to roll up their sleeves and create things, and has lost touch with practice, and (2) we have broadened our engineering education (read: "watered down") to the point that we no longer provide our students with the required foundations. Both perceptions are way off base.

The nitty gritty of "real engineering" – in education and product development

The truth is, today's School of Engineering focuses both on giving our students the best foundation of engineering science fundamentals and on developing abilities to create products and services that impact society. Indeed, one of our underlying tenets is that theory and practice go hand in hand, as embodied in MIT's motto mens et manus.[1] There is much that I could say about this topic. I write today about one aspect of the theory-practice spectrum: what one of our former faculty members called "black nail" engineering, that is, the "real" engineering that takes getting your hands dirty to make things. It's this kind of engineering that is key to the School's mission and that has significant impact on the world. The School, through our faculty and alumni, has a glorious tradition of developing and contributing to life-changing technologies over the past decades. That tradition goes on today.

Developing "real engineering" skills is a critical ingredient of an MIT engineering education, one on which we place tremendous importance. Our faculty support this thrust in a variety of ways: by conducting exciting and engaging design contests, by teaching how to create and develop products, and by creating novel products, services and even companies. Our School-based Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) provides students with needed skills and experiences to prepare them for careers in "real" engineering. The Innovation Teams ("i-Teams") course, taught jointly by the School of Engineering and the Sloan School of Management, gives entrepreneurial graduate students experience in bringing innovations from research to the marketplace.

You probably already know how vital creating new technologies and products is to the economic well-being of a nation. Robert Solow, an MIT faculty member and Nobel laureate in economics, has estimated that 50 percent of this nation's economic growth since World War II can be attributed directly to technology. Looking at MIT alone, a well known BankBoston study in 1997[2] cited 4,000 MIT-founded companies as employing over a million people and having annual world sales of $232 billion. If these companies had constituted a foreign country at that time, they would have ranked 24th-largest in the world – just behind South Africa and ahead of Thailand. The same study found that one out of every 170 jobs in the United States in 1994 had been created by an MIT graduate or professor.

School of Engineering contributions add economic value . . .