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ELITE Program Trains MIE Students for Elite Leadership Positions

Last semester the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department added a powerful new leadership component to its curriculum, the Engineering Leadership, Innovation, Teaching, and Entrepreneurship Program. Simply call it ELITE for short! The ELITE Program equips some of the department’s most promising students with the leadership, entrepreneurial, and communications skills to expand the pool of engineers who become CEOs, founding officers, supervisors, directors, managers, and teachers. “We look at the ELITE Program as the first step along swelling the pipeline of leaders,” says MIE Department Head Don Fisher, who started the program at the beginning of 2012 with the help of some very generous donors, led by alumnus Bob Hagerty.

Now ELITE is enjoying so much early success that the MIE department is boosting the number of students in the program from six to 10 or 12.

The ELITE Program was Professor Fisher’s brainchild, originally inspired by the 2011 Tang lecturer, Dr. Edwin L. Thomas ’69 ME, The William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Engineering at Rice University. His lecture focused on instilling more leadership skills in engineering students to prepare them for the reality of today’s engineering workplace.

That reality really hit home with Anthony Bernasconi, one of the original six ELITE students. “Some of the new skills that I received from the ELITE training program were leadership skills concerning how to address high-tension scenarios and also how to boost morale,” explains Bernasconi, “and also pedagogy skills, such as how to focus on key concepts through abstract problem generation and also how to test for fundamental concept knowledge.”

“I learned more about business theories, alternate methods of teaching, optimal methods for organizing groups, and handfuls of other skills related to teaching and leading,” adds Frank May, another of the ELITE six from the spring 2012 semester. 

One of the things that motivated Fisher and the MIE department to form the program was the kind of information provided by the Wall Street Journal in its January 31, 2012, edition. Not only is the demand for engineers “voracious,” the article reported, but engineers increasingly are the go-to leaders chosen to head companies. The Journal recounted that in a recently published study 3,337 company founders and CEOs across all industries held advanced degrees in engineering. By comparison, only 1,016 company founders and CEOs had advanced business degrees. The headline on the article was very revealing in itself: “Move over MBAs: Here Come the Engineers!”

One of the ELITE Program’s engineers who is coming on strong is Alex Chan. “As an aspiring professor, I want to make sure I keep the lessons learned during the teaching portion of the seminar in mind,” says Chan. “I am now more aware how much care must be taken to be an effective instructor. Also, I now understand that to be successful, I must always innovate and strive to be a well-rounded person in engineering, leadership, innovation, teaching, and entrepreneurship.” 

The ELITE Program owes its very existence to Hagerty, who graduated from the department in 1974 with a B.S. and is now passing on his own dynamic leadership legacy to the students in his alma mater. Hagerty is currently the chief executive officer for iControl Networks. His challenge grant of $12,500 allowed the MIE department to choose the first six students for the ELITE Program early in 2012.

Hagerty is the perfect role model for these future leaders, whom he leads now by good example. With his support, the MIE department has put together the ELITE practicum, taught by MIE Professors Fisher (engineering leadership), Bob Hyers (entrepreneurship), and James Rinderle (teaching pedagogy). Its purpose is to endow our future leaders with entrepreneurial spirit, excellent communications skills, and exposure to innovation. In addition, each ELITE student gets a generous stipend, courtesy of the Hagerty gift.

The program has already left its mark on the original ELITE students. “In my time at UMass and Virginia Tech, where I spent freshman year,” says ELITE student Chris Martin, “I have never had the opportunity to be in a classroom environment as interesting and inspiring as this one is.”

That inspiring classroom environment includes more than 10 ELITE classes, alumni speakers, the chance to serve as teaching assistants, and lessons in teaching methodologies. The program also provides ELITE undergraduates with personal mentoring by faculty and alumni.

“Since becoming interested in engineering, I have always wanted to start up a company in my future, using the engineering design skills and innovation to start something new and exciting,” says Bernasconi. “With the help of this practicum, with seminars and speeches from alumni and Professor Hyers, I feel that this will help me toward my goal in life.”

In addition to a wealth of teaching experience and seminars from industry representatives and leaders, the ELITE students take field trips to corporations, and participate in entrepreneurial activities such as the UMass Innovation Challenge business plan competition and the Entrepreneurship Club.

A huge component in the ELITE Program is about ideals, values, and ethics, key qualities that have proven woefully lacking during many of history’s most notorious corporate leadership scandals. As ELITE student Natalie Zucker explains, “I would generally like helping improve the quality of life, because I believe that is truly rewarding.”

What will the ELITE Program ultimately do? Like the rest of the MIE curriculum, it seeks to support our students with the best experiences possible with one end result in mind: to create new knowledge and to serve as a leading economic engine, sending forth capable leaders and entrepreneurial contributors.

And you can be part of the ELITE team, too. “The ELITE Program is ready to expand, and we’re interested in engaging alumni to support the program through a donation and by speaking to students in one of the seminars,” reports Paula Sakey, director of the college development office. You can contact her at psakey@ecs.umass.edu or 413-545-6396. (December 2012)