Committed Cohort Dedicates Every Other Weekend to Mastering Systems Engineering

Committed Cohort Dedicates Every Other Weekend to Mastering Systems Engineering

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It’s a master’s program for people who have other things to do with their lives.

The University of Virginia’s one-year Accelerated Master’s Program in Systems Engineering attracts a busy clientele – people who want to continue working, but who can devote two intensive days every other week to earning a degree. 

“The goal is to offer an option for working professionals, because it is becoming harder and harder for professionals to take a year or two out to earn a degree through the traditional classroom approach,” said the program’s director, William T. Scherer, a professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment. “This program, begun 21 years ago with more than 600 alumni, gives individuals an option for completing a valuable degree program while attending classes, but just on weekends. The vast majority of people taking this are working full-time.”

The program is structured with two weeks of intensive classes on Grounds – one at the beginning of the year in May, and one at the end in April. The group takes 10 courses a year, two at a time, about 10 weeks each, with classes every other Friday and Saturday. The entire cohort takes the same courses and works together. While the program is based in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the classes are held at the Darden School of Business, with several Darden faculty participating.  

To accommodate the COVID-19 pandemic, the program went virtual for more than a year. It started this year online, but has now returned to in-person classes. 

“What we do the whole time is group work. Whenever I talk to prospective students, I tell them the program is not competitive, it is collaborative,” said Valerie Michel, a 2017 AMP alumna and current UVA Ph.D. candidate. “If everyone earns an ‘A,’ then everyone gets an ‘A.’”

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Each student must demonstrate competency to complete the program successfully.

Michel, who was an AMP teaching assistant and is now the program manager, said the teamwork reflects many current collaborative work environments. And working in teams helps the AMP students bond, a camaraderie that Scherer said survived the COVID interregnum.

“The entire year of COVID, they did not get as good an experience.” Scherer said. “We had biweekly cocktail hours where I would get online with them at about 5 o’clock on a Wednesday night and we would just chat. We did a lot of events throughout the year – virtual events, because that is what the times required.”

Scherer said the students got to know each other even while working virtually on case studies, so they weren’t strangers when they came together at the end of their year for a graduation luncheon. 

“It wasn’t as good as it is in-person, but they do so much teamwork and we have top faculty who know how to engage the students,” Scherer said. “We were able to replicate about 80% of that, but not all.”

Scherer said this year AMP has its smallest cohort – 15 students, about half the typical class size – which he attributes to uncertainty over COVID. The size of the class gives the students room to spread out in their Darden classroom, socially distanced in tiered semi-circles in front of the instructor. The masked students follow along on two screens in the front of the room, or on the identical material that appears on their laptop screens, as professor Greg Gerling, associate professor of systems engineering who studies applied human factor engineering, discusses successful product design.

Associate professor Laura Barnes teaches AMP students “Statistics for Engineering” in a classroom at Darden. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Earlier, the entire cohort had lunch together at outdoor tables, sharing food and swapping stories under the warm sun of a waning summer. 

For many students, the program fits into the complexity of their lives. Pat Hartley of Broad Run works for the Large Binocular Telescope at Mount Graham Observatory in Swift Trail Junction, Arizona. He commutes every other week to Arizona, and concentrates on his AMP classes the weeks he is in Broad Run. The U.S. Navy trained him in nuclear technology, and after he retired from there, he worked in commercial nuclear power and earned an MBA.

“I ended up doing work that made me curious about how decisions were made and how things come about,” Hartley said.

Scherer said the systems engineering program focuses on three approaches to problem-solving: a systems thinking framework, a foundation in systems analysis tools and methods and a business element taught by Darden faculty.

“We put these three components together and we create a unique degree that works across a wide range of application domains and disparate industries,” Scherer said.

While Hartley is looking for how decisions are made, Will Jackson, a retired Air Force veteran and current Homeland Security employee, said the program focus on system analysis, systems integration and risk will help him in his work as an engineer.

“Those types of concepts would be very beneficial to what I am doing right now, which is looking at and evaluating technical risk,” he said.

Dennis Monahan, a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, is taking the course to expand his skill set. Monahan has a work title of “systems engineer,” but no engineering degree. Retired from the U.S. Navy, he sees AMP as a way he can pursue his passion.

 “I like the idea that I could create a technology or be involved with a technology that is impactful,” he said. “With Booz Allen, I am helping to operationalize new technology and new science for the U.S. Navy. I would like to be able to build on that. That is my passion, cutting-edge technology and putting it to use.”

Monahan, who received an MBA at Darden in 2011, said the AMP program lets him see beyond the horizon.

Dennis Monahan, a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, wants to work with cutting-edge technology and putting it to use. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“At Darden, you learn a lot about business and general management. You also learn about the importance and influence of your network as it relates to growing and creating opportunities. With my passion being impactful tinkering, I needed a program like the AMP to gain exposure to more of the places where you can do those things,” Monahan said. “The curtain is starting to come up and I can see more of what the opportunity is. And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, it is much greater than I could have imagined.”

Monahan, middle-aged with two young children and married to a triple-Hoo, appreciates the assistance he receives to be able to take the master’s program.

“I don’t think you can balance all of this work and all of these competing schedules without a good support system at home,” Monahan said. “I have been working hard trying to make sure I am prioritizing and focusing on each of the activities that are important at the time to meet all the deadlines while learning all of the things I possibly can. But this isn’t an individual effort. I wouldn’t be able to succeed without the strength, support and patience of my family.”

Caroline Mastrangelo juggles two children (one 5 months old), a husband who has been deployed in the Navy and her own 11-year career in the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. She was looking for a challenge and a program that is applicable to her current work and to any future careers she may pursue.

“Currently the chief of the Civil Engineer Corps has set a priority on how he wants to shape the Civil Engineer Corps using data metrics, data science, and incorporating that more into the decision-making process and how to make better decisions with the data that they have,” Mastroangleo said.

Will Jackson said the AMP program will help expand his knowledge of systems engineering principles in his position at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

When Mastrangelo comes to Charlottesville for classes, she travels with a nanny who takes care of 5-month-old Audrey. And as if the logistics weren’t enough, Mastrangelo has found her challenge in the coursework, the first intensive schoolwork she has done since she received a mechanical engineering degree at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.

“Thus far I have done the summer course and two fall courses. It is still engineering, but it is more math-heavy,” she said. “I haven’t done undergrad in 10 years, so I had to remember a lot of the math.”

Many people, such as Monahan, come to AMP from industry, but a sizeable component over the years have been current or former military servicemembers.

“Most of them are working when they take the program, then use the degree to leverage a promotion or to transition to something else,” Scherer said. “We have a lot of military who use this as their transition from a military to a civilian career. Even the non-military folks are using it to transition to a new place at their employer or promotion or to shift to a new place, as well.”

Thomas Brett, a former U.S. Army artillery officer and retired attorney, is AMP’s official military liaison. He recruits veterans, currently serving or newly separated military personnel for the program. He came to the program about 11 years ago, meeting a graduate student who introduced him to the executive director.

Pat Hartley of Vienna, who works at the Mount Graham Observatory in Swift Trail Junction, Arizona, is curious about how decisions are made. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Serendipitously, “UVA was looking for someone to fill the role of looking for military people, and I had military experience,” said Brett, who served in Vietnam before embarking on a law career in central New York. “I was six years at the Department of Justice in Washington. I can speak graduate school, I can speak officer, I can speak advanced education. In my legal career, I dealt with engineers and engineering problems, so in many ways I treat prospective students, faculty and others as expert witnesses. I talk to them about what they do and what UVA has to offer them toward an advance in their career.”

Scherer and Brett agree this program is good for military personnel moving into civilian careers, giving them not only a different perspective on life, but also opening up opportunities.

“They can see the opportunities that exist for them outside the military and outside their current life,” Brett said. “Many of the civilian classmates see what these people can do and say, ‘Why don’t you apply to our organization?’ or ‘We have an opening for somebody who will be a systems engineer. Why don’t you think about what we do?’ There is an awful lot of interaction among the students that leads to career enhancement for the military people.”

Scherer said the learning is what’s important to the students.

“We tell people there is real work here,” he said. “It is rigorous with real learning, and the students we get want that. It is not for everyone. That is why we have 30 students and some online programs have 10,000.”

Caroline Mastrangelo was looking for a challenge and a program that is applicable to her current work in the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Scherer appreciates adult learners.

“How exciting and thrilling it is when people are really engaged,” he said. “Adult learners are smart. Thirty people in the room have a combined experience and they know more than I do.

“When I was younger, it was intimidating teaching people who were older than me. Now I realize it’s the self-learning, the self-questioning. Outside of the classroom is where people learn the most.” 

While the faculty instructors are important, the students learn from each other as they work together on their course projects and final capstones projects.

“It is the whole experience where you learn,” Scherer said. “You learn how to work with other people. You learn all kinds of things. With adults, it is amazing how much higher their expectations are. It becomes a mutual learning experience, a different pedagogy and way of thinking. These students have done a lot and know a lot. It’s a shared experience and every year it’s brand-new, with 30 new adults with 30 new experiences.”

Scherer said the program’s students have a 98% completion rate, and noted that academic supports are in place for students who start lagging. “My goal is that once you start, we want you to legitimately finish,” he said.

The students’ interactions continue even after they graduate. “They communicate with each other, and we send them one to five emails a week with job opportunities,” Scherer said. “We do a couple of events a year for all the alums of the program, and 50 to 60 alums will come back and share business cards and phone numbers. There is a lot of networking.”

The students and alumni socialize together and, after spending a year as a unit, the cohort members remain close. One alumnus who married shortly after the program invited his entire cohort to his wedding in North Carolina.

“For the last several years, the cohorts have gotten together and rented a lodge or a house for the weekend to celebrate their graduation,” Scherer said. “We have had seven companies form out of the cohort. Two people sitting next to each other start talking and say, ‘Let’s work for ourselves.’”

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University News Associate Office of University Communications