Sunday, March 7, 2010

SDM puts new cohort straight to work on real-world projects - SDM Pulse Spring 2010

By Kathryn O’Neill, managing editor, SDM Pulse

Practice, practice, practice.

That could be the motto of MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM), because in many ways what sets the program apart from MBAs and other more typical forms of graduate education is its emphasis on learning by doing—mens et manus, mind and hand.

SDM colleagues work on the first design challenge of the
January Session—programming a robot with Mindstorm.
They are, from left, Rafael Marañón Abreu, Jaime Garza
Ramirez, Doug Schofield, Amparo Cañaveras, Billy Hou,
and Jennifer Wang.
This philosophy is immediately evident during the grueling monthlong January Session (often called “SDM boot camp”) that begins the program. Students pack in several hours of classwork each day—taking courses in leadership, probability and statistics, system architecture, and the human side of technology. Plus, they put what they’ve learned into immediate action in a series of three tough design challenges.

Just one week into the program, SDM students start working on projects for actual business clients. “They get real hands-on experience in as real a situation as possible,” said Dr. Guillermo Aguirre, the instructor for this challenge (the second and longest of the three) and the former technology director for Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology.

“Here there’s a real market. Someone wants this,” said Vijan Bhaumik, SDM ’09, one of a group of 14 experienced SDM students who helped run the January Session.

During the second design challenge
of the January program, Jen Wang,
SDM ’10, works on a Halloween mask
design prototype for REV, a latex
figure and accessories company
based in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
As part of the strategy for the SDM boot camp outlined by SDM Fellows Program Director Pat Hale and SDM Industry Codirector John M. Grace, Aguirre brought in eight companies with a variety of systems problems for the students to tackle. Projects ranged from developing a marketing plan for a new medical monitoring device to creating both a new line of products and a new business strategy for a furniture manufacturer. Each company made contacts available to answer student questions about business needs.

“It’s very intensive. Every day for two weeks we spent a couple hours on this,” said Jaime Garza Ramirez, SDM ’10, a supply chain consultant for Suntec who worked on the office furniture challenge. “We analyzed the product’s structure, its form and shape, and then [Aguirre’s] consultants helped us build a prototype.” Garza Ramirez’s team ultimately produced a new cubicle design that provides more usable space by abandoning the traditional rectangular shape for hexagons.

At the end of the challenge, teams presented the results of their work to the entire cohort: a new method for killing botulism in food packets; a modernized Halloween mask; a marketing plan for a kitchen scrubber; and more.

“It’s the first time I’ve worked outside of software,” said Rutu Manchiganti, SDM ’10, whose team worked on a new design for a high-end obstetrics table. “You quickly find what you do well and what you don’t. And for what you don’t, you learn to find a teammate who can help.”

Learning to work well in teams is one of the fundamental lessons of the January Session, which is why the first design challenge focuses primarily on building the team skills students will need throughout the SDM program. For this challenge, students were split into teams and given five days to assign tasks, form strategies, build, program, prototype, and test their designs for a robot competition.

Blade Kotelly, SDM ’10, works with industrial designer
Alberto Soto, right, to conceptualize a new product
for Mexican sponge manufacturer Somaki.
Of course, programming Mindstorm robots is easier than solving major systems problems for a company, so Aguirre provided some assistance for the second challenge. He worked with the companies to properly frame the problems in advance. And, since the students only had two weeks for this challenge, Aguirre brought in a team of industrial designers to help build working prototypes.

“The students had to test their designs,” Aguirre said, noting that the students who worked on furniture, for example, were able to actually sit at a prototype desk and see for themselves how well it functioned. “That is experience. You cannot simulate that,” he said. “Amazingly, a lot of products that go wrong, go wrong because the designers never got their hands on the actual product.”

“I think—I hope—that we have actually delivered some value to this company,” said Jess Posey, SDM ’10, whose team explored ways to commercialize intellectual property for a Mexican research and development institute.

Aguirre definitely saw value in the team’s results. “In some cases I couldn’t see any way of getting a better result for the company. They just did a superb job,” he said.

One company representative who was able to attend the final presentations agreed, remarking that her organization definitely planned to put the students’ ideas to the test.

The January Session ended with a third challenge, in which students were asked to research one of three major systems issues: improving large-scale disaster recovery (e.g. earthquake, tsunami, hurricane); enabling economic development with minimal carbon impact; or promoting the study of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Each team had to decompose and/or define the problem and make a connection to a local nonprofit working to address that problem. In their final presentations, teams explained why SDM should support the organization of their choice. Winning organizations—the Tzu Chi Foundation (disaster recovery); the Appropriate Infrastructure Development group (carbon impact); and the Museum of Science Engineering Is Elemental program (STEM)—each received $500 from SDM.

Posey remarked that although his first weeks at SDM were definitely like “drinking from a fire hose,” he is already seeing the value of the program. “What I like about this is there’s some realization that engineering and technical functions can’t exist all by themselves,” he said, comparing SDM to the program he attended to get his MBA. “At the end of the day, cool as it is, the question is: Will the customer buy it?”

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