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Consulting Engineers: the TGI Summer Practicum Experience

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Aika Syrgak-Kyzy (’17) is spending her summer thinking about how to monetize a tiny waterproof device that attaches to kiteboards, measures their jumps, and then shares the data with a social network. It is an exciting prospect, “I always wanted to work for a startup and this is a great opportunity to be involved with one hands-on,” she says.

The M.S. in Engineering Management (MSEM) Class of 2017 is currently embarking on their summer practicum, a project that bridges the two academic years of the degree by providing hands-on consulting experience. The MSEM Practicum Consulting Project allows companies —from large corporations to small start-ups— to submit proposals for short term consulting projects to be undertaken by student teams. The proposals this year range from a small company wondering how to use information released in a recent government white paper, to a large company interested in options for incorporating technology forecasted to appear years in the future, to a firm looking for ways to optimize community engagement. “There’s really something for everyone,” says the Director of the MSEM program, Mary Viola. Through the Summer Practicum, businesses gain these insights at no cost while Tufts University MSEM students receive valuable practical experience working with clients.

Around the end of April, first year MSEM students selected their top four Practicum choices and then were sorted into groups of four to five, drawing from all three cohorts. An important part of the practicum is collaborating and networking with students from other cohorts, Viola says. Each team is assigned a faculty advisor who serves as a coach and professional resource. This year’s advisors are Tufts Gordon Institute Professors of the Practice— Partha Ghosh, Sam Liggero, and Kevin Oye— and Instructors—Gerry Brown, Frank Apeseche, and Mark Bamford.

A record eighty-four students were split into seventeen teams and are now working on projects from seventeen sponsor companies that include Boston Engineering, E-Ink, Paytronix, Schlumberger, and Draper. Viola describes the Practicum as a “huge opportunity for students to begin to apply the skills and competencies learned during their first year outside of the safe environment of Tufts.” Students who completed practicum projects last summer agreed. Katie Jorgensen (’16), who worked on propelling a newly launched business into new markets, says that it was one of her favorite projects during her time in the program.

“I had always had an interest in understanding how a seed company starts from the ground up. Bitzy Baby was very open to answering any of my questions and fully willing to share information on how they started their business journey. Coming from a major corporate environment [AbbVie], the summer practicum provided me insight into how startup companies operate which has improved my business acumen skills and has opened my eyes to other possibilities for my career outside of my current industry.”

While each project is different, all practicums have some common elements and goals. As Jorgensen describes, a major component is the opportunity for students to have an experience outside of their normal work environment. “We highly encourage students who work in larger companies to consider doing a Practicum at a startup or small company,” says Viola. Indeed, exposure to a different company structure was a deciding factor in every student response received for this story. Kevin Oye, the new Director of the MSIM program and Professor of the Practice, explains that this arrangement benefits companies as well because “as outsiders, the Tufts MSEM team can bring fresh eyes and insights to the young company, and help identify and shape what the critical challenges are.”

Learning to develop and navigate positive relationships with clients is another important goal of every project. Delivering a new perspective can require some courage and tact. One of last year’s teams found that their research showed something different than the company’s own research. “They drew their conclusions from how integrators saw the technology and not how customers saw the technology,” one team member said, “we were confident in what we produced, but we were met with a thought process that was quite different…[but] to get the whole picture you need to look from different angles and not be afraid to deliver the different angle.” The team emphasizes the importance of getting to know the sponsor company and understanding their strengths and weaknesses to deliver insights because “institutional biases can hide what a company truly has to offer and opportunities for improvement. [The process] is like a corporate Meyers-Briggs.”

Equally important is finding out what the client really wants, or needs, and dealing with ambiguity. For personality types used to structure, uncertainty can be a major challenge, but it is one that Michael Murphy (’17) is excited to encounter this summer with the Woo Sports team.

“Personally, one of the most exciting things about the project is the fact that it is extremely open-ended. We went into the [Woo Sports] office in South Boston and had a two hour conversation with the CEO and his staff about the company, the past performance, their perceived strengths and weaknesses, and the vision they’re striving for. We asked the CEO point-blank what he wanted us to work on and he gave us carte blanche.”

Oye, the team’s faculty advisor, is confident that “while it may be initially daunting to be given so much freedom to choose where to focus, MSEM students have the skills to step up to this greater role, and by taking advantage of the practicum to exercise these new muscles, they’ll prepare themselves to apply these same skills in their day jobs and beyond.”

Tufts Gordon Institute’s M.S. in Engineering Managment students are not, of course, your average graduate students with a purely academic CV. On average they have seven years of industry experience and the majority continue to balance graduate work with full time jobs at companies like Shire Pharmaceuticals, Draper, and Raytheon. The consulting project gives the students a break from a traditional academic schedule while still being a valuable, and mutually beneficial, learning experience. Viola says that with few exceptions “the sponsors are very delighted with the work that they get, and it is something that they use, and they will oftentimes let the students know about some of the outcomes that are very much appreciated.”

How would past practicum teams advise those students just beginning their projects this summer? “Communication drives success” says Chad Chamberlin (’17) who worked on a Practicum for iQLP last year, “weekly face-to-face meetings kept our team on track and enabled us to quickly incorporate new ideas into our strategy.” Another team suggests that you use “the contacts you know (Tufts Gordon Institute, personal contacts, friends, family) as they are the most willing to assist and share their insights.” Jorgensen adds that the clients themselves can be great resources, and that choosing a practicum in an organization unlike her own kept her “energized and motivated throughout the project.”

For someone passionate about sports and encouraging others to lead an active life, the Woo Sports project is perfect for Syrgak-Kyzy, who believes the first year classes prepared her to take on the challenge and is hopeful that her team will make a big impact with the company. But whether they’re working on wakeboard data, models of community involvement, or polymers, Viola promises that the practicum will be a growth opportunity for all MSEM students.