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Thomas Magnanti - Engineering, Education, Research And Beyond

CrazyEngineers exclusive interview with Mr. Thomas L. Magnanti of MIT & SUTD as a part of Founders Circuit initiative
CrazyEngineers
CrazyEngineers Staff · 31 May 2011
Founders Circuit Team
"Engineering is important, fun, and rewarding. It provides unlimited professional opportunities for a rich and satisfying career, and infinite possibilities to make a difference in the world."
- Mr. Thomas L. Magnanti, MIT & SUTD

Mr. Thomas L. Magnanti originally trained as a Chemical Engineer, is the Institute Professor and former Dean of the School of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is currently the President of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) established in collaboration with MIT.

We asked him about his experiences in teaching young engineers, about quality of engineering education, about blending it with entrepreneurship & design, about nuances of SUTD and more.

Check out our Small Talk with Prof. Magnanti -


CE: Hello Professor, Could you tell us a bit about you and your growing up years?

Prof. Magnanti: My father worked in an engineering division of a large chemical company and I was surrounded by his engineering friends. I can’t say that as a youngster I fully understood all they were doing, but it seemed very exciting – building new plants, introducing new products, solving production problems – they all seemed to be having a great time. My other great interests were sports. If I had the talent, I would have loved to have been a major league baseball player. In retrospect, perhaps I was attracted to both engineering and sports because they both (i) require great expertise and skill, (ii) are team-based, and (iii) are great fun.

CE: You are a chemical engineer. Why did you take up chemical engineering and what interests you most about this field?

Prof. Magnanti: I studied chemical engineering because I was inspired by the exciting projects being undertaken by the chemical engineers around me. While studying chemical engineering I discovered my true calling: the field of optimization and operations research. I just love the fact that optimization combines applied mathematics, computation, and engineering and their application to numerous practical contexts. I have been able to apply optimization to settings as varied as the design of communication networks, manufacturing planning and scheduling, and transportation routing.

CE: What are the unique things you have implemented in Singapore University of Technology and Design?

Prof. Magnanti: SUTD is the first university in the world to incorporate the art and science of design and technology into a multi-disciplinary undergraduate curriculum. The University is distinguished by its unique academic program, which incorporates elements of technology, entrepreneurship, management and design. The engineering degrees that we offer are not structured along the traditional fields of mechanical, electrical, chemical or industrial engineering. Instead, our degrees are organized around broad subject matter in engineering product development, architecture and sustainable design, engineering systems and design, and information systems technology and design. We believe that this novel approach best serves the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s world.

SUTD is grounded on an underlying premise that common design knowledge, principles, practice, and skills cut across many fields. As such, there is much to be gained by adopting a comprehensive view of design, research, and education, while exposing students broadly to a full range of design methodologies, thinking, and application contexts. Another underlying premise is that successful design requires strong foundations in basic mathematics, sciences, and technology in addition to grounding in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and management. With this knowledge base, woven effectively with hands-on experiential learning, students will emerge from SUTD well prepared to tackle whatever challengers they might encounter.

CE: Many engineers today leave technical field and get management degrees after graduation. What is your opinion about this?

Prof. Magnanti: I have two reactions.

(1) Society needs individuals who are steeped in technology and have managerial expertise. I believe that in many industries and contexts the very best managers are those who are technically grounded. Much of my professional career has been devoted to developing educational programs that combine engineering and management (notable examples are MIT’s Leader for Manufacturing Program, now called Leaders for Global Operations, and its System Design and Management Program). One path to providing this technically grounded leader is an engineering degree followed by a management degree.

(2) A properly designed undergraduate degree in engineering equips young people with the knowledge and skills to enter and contribute effectively to almost any professional area, including management. The novel SUTD educational program is intended to educate technically-grounded leaders and thus fulfil this need.

CE: How important is it for the students to get a quality education in an Engineering College?

Prof. Magnanti: As just noted, a quality undergraduate education in an Engineering College provides much needed foundations and skills for students to enter a variety of professions in and beyond engineering. An engineering education provides students with analytical skills and a “can-do” attitude that permit them to critically analyse and solve the most challenging problems or issues. Engineers are the world’s problem solvers. They can apply their skills to any industry, including those in the service sector (banking, retailing, …) where they can innovate in the use of technology as well as examine, design and improve underlying processes. In short, a quality engineering educated workforce leads to a quality society.

CE: What are the state of the art features offered by SUTD that will be the most appealing for the brightest minds willing to enter the engineering domain?

Prof. Magnanti: The SUTD undergraduate curriculum will prepare the brightest minds for industry, graduate school, and, generally, a place in the world.

SUTD’s curriculum will be interdisciplinary. Students will receive an education in science, technology, arts, humanities, and social sciences, together with a firm grounding in management and entrepreneurship.

Design as a discipline will cut across the curriculum and provide a novel framework for the research and educational programs.

The curriculum will be taught through a unique pedagogy. It starts with students organized around small group, cohort-based learning communities that will provide intimate connections with faculty and one another while learning with and from each other.

Students will be engaged in project-based hands-on learning throughout the curriculum.

SUTD research, centered around an International Design Center (IDC), with mirror research facilities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will focus on issues that matter to the world. The IDC initially addresses three key grand challenges: a sustainable built environment, engineering for the developing world, and Information and Computation Technology (ICT) enabled devices for better living.

CE: SUTD is the first university in the world to integrate the concept of design and innovation as a common thread in research and engineering. Tell us more about it.

Prof. Magnanti: At SUTD, technology and design are underlying elements in the curriculum and research. We focus on what we call “Big D” design: that is, architectural design, product design, software design, systems design and essentially all technically-grounded design. For us, Big D design is not confined just to conceptualization, but includes the full value chain of design, prototyping, marketing, manufacturing, and maintenance. In the curriculum, courses will be taught with design in mind. For example, students will have to understand how physics theories, or developments in history, can aid them when designing a product. This approach creates a stimulating and engaging learning environment through which students can readily appreciate and recognize how what they learn can impact lives.

CE: You have been a professor at MIT for so many years. As an engineer, tell us about your teaching experiences and as a professor what are your expectations from an engineering college student?

Prof. Magnanti: Teaching and watching young people learn and grow both personally and professionally is one of the great pleasures of life. Indeed, I can’t imagine any better way to spend one’s life than as a teacher, educator, and researcher. There is great challenge and satisfaction to explain complex material, make it come to life, and witness the “ah” moments of comprehension and excitement in a student studying with you. My proudest accomplishments as an academic are my students and their achievements. What do I expect in a student? An inquisitive mind, a willingness to work hard and play hard, a joy for learning, and energy and enthusiasm.

CE: What are your views about blending entrepreneurship with engineering?

Prof. Magnanti: For solutions to really serve societal needs, they must be adopted by their target audience. As such, it is important for engineers to have the ability to bring their solutions to market. Blending entrepreneurship with engineering exposes engineers to the entire value chain of a product, service or solution, from conceptualization, testing, implementation, review, maintenance, pricing and bringing it to the market.

CE: What is your message to CrazyEngineers aka CEans?

Prof. Magnanti: Engineering is important, fun, and rewarding. It provides unlimited professional opportunities for a rich and satisfying career, and infinite possibilities to make a difference in the world.

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CrazyEngineers is thankful to Prof. Magnanti and Zerlina Tay for their time and support in making the Small Talk possible.