U.Va.'s Accelerated Systems Engineering Master's Program Benefits Professionals – and Organizations They Research

July 28, 2010 — Students in the University of Virginia's Accelerated Master's Program in Systems Engineering take on challenging "systems" problems – researching, for example, how to more effectively deliver time-critical blood platelets to patients, or analyzing hazardous materials transportation procedures for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.

These applied research projects are the culmination of the program's curriculum, which is designed to strengthen practicing engineers' analytical and problem-solving skills. The projects also significantly benefit the organizations that engage the students in the projects.

The Accelerated Master's Program allows professionals from a variety of technical fields to earn a master's degree in systems engineering in just 11 months while continuing their careers. Classes, taught by faculty from U.Va.'s Engineering School and Darden School of Business, are held every other weekend throughout the year, and students meet on Grounds for a full week at the beginning and end of the program.

For the final course, the program's 40 students are split into teams and assigned "capstone" projects that require them to complete a systems analysis and design project involving large-scale complex systems.

In 2005, students researched the feasibility of integrating inland rivers into the nation's intermodal transportation system for the U.S. Maritime Administration. The next two years they researched hazardous material procedures for the Transportation Security Administration. Since 2008, students have been assigned to various projects at the U.Va. Health System, including analyzing communication between nursing units and pharmacists, studying the process of translational medical research, and researching the blood bank's storage and distribution of time-critical blood platelets.

Michael Smith, the program's director, estimates that each year these practicing engineers/graduate students deliver systems consultation worth more than $200,000 to clients through these capstone projects.

"We bring a group of 30 to 40 practicing engineers, with a year's worth of graduate work completed, to focus on specific problems for a week," Smith said. "It's rare that our clients would have access to this much of this type of talent, so it is a real value to them."

This past year, students analyzed the operations of the U.Va. Health System's transplant and infusion centers. Their reports detailed a systems approach to improving service delivery and efficiency and increasing patient satisfaction in the centers.

Students' comments highlight the intensity of these projects, in addition to their rewards. One student wrote: "This was one of the most difficult and taxing experiences I can recall. It was also one of the most rewarding. Reflecting now upon what our team was able to accomplish, and the level to which our 'client,' the U.Va. Health System, seemed satisfied and even pleased with our recommendations, I feel very good about the accomplishment. This course did an excellent job of tying together everything we've learned over the past year within the context of a fairly 'real-world' type of systems analysis job."

In keeping with the rapid pace of the entire program, the bulk of the work on the capstone projects is conducted in a week's time.

"The challenge for these students is to clearly understand the problem outlined in the work statement and decide where they can add the greatest value in the limited time they have," Smith said.

Smith sees organizations' willingness to bring back student researchers in subsequent years as one indicator of the capstone projects', and the program's, overall success. Jeff Cutruzulla, a U.Va. Health System administrator, was satisfied with students' recent analysis of the Transplant Center.

"I expect that we will be contemplating the execution of some of their recommendations," he said. "Most important for me is that we have taken full advantage of healthy collaboration within the University."

While the value of pro-bono consultation to organizations is an ancillary benefit of the program, the success of its students is at the core of its mission. There are many success stories from professionals who have returned to their jobs with strengthened analytical and problem-solving skills.

In 2008, Salman Syed, then a new master's graduate, was recognized by Consulting Magazine as one of the top "30 Under Thirty" consultants nationally. At the time, Syed was working for Booz Allen Hamilton, where he won the firm's prestigious Professional Excellence Award. He is now a manager at Deloitte Consulting.

More recently, Jonathan Goodnight won the Technical Professional of the Year Award at the American Business Awards. Goodnight is an associate systems engineer for High Performance Technologies Inc., a technology consulting firm for federal government clients. Goodnight earned the award for developing tailored technology products that facilitated multi-billion-dollar acquisitions for the Department of Defense.

This past spring, Goodnight led a team of fellow Accelerated Master's Program students on the analysis of the Transplant Center.

"I think I benefited most from the leadership opportunity my team provided me by asking me to lead our project," Goodnight said. "I learned a lot about making the best use of your available resources and balancing frequent 'compass checks' against the perception of micromanaging clearly capable team members. Maybe I learned the most important lesson in the push of the final night before presentations – don't let perfection be the enemy of 'good enough.'"

Goodnight has been a master's alum for only about six weeks, so it's hard to say how the program has impacted his career, but he's confident that the degree was well worth the time and money spent.

"Over the course of the program, AMP instilled and then reinforced the idea of taking time up front to make sure I'm answering the right problem with the right approach before jumping into a step-by-step process," he said. "I like that so many of the classes focus on problem definition first and let the techniques follow from there. I find myself taking an extra few minutes at work to be thoughtful about why I'm doing something before doing it."

— by Zak Richards