The Art and Science of Teaching Teachers

By Sarah Foote

When MIT professor Charles Leiserson noticed a gap in the leadership education of science and engineering faculty, he worked to create a course that would fill the void.

Leiserson began teaching Leadership Skills for Engineering and Science Faculty (LSF), an MIT Professional EducationShort Programs course, more than 10 years ago. The response to the course has been extremely positive — with participants coming from all over the United States and places as far away as Mexico and Ghana to attend the course on MIT’s campus.

“I wanted to take human centered material and put it in context for science and engineering faculty, in a way that would affect the way people deal with different and changing environments,” said Leiserson, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow.

Leiserson met his co-instructor, Chuck McVinney, a consultant who works to create sustainable organizations, at Akamai Technologies when it was a start-up. Leiserson quickly discovered that the group of technology experts assembled there didn’t know how to work as a team. As a result, feelings were hurt, and the work wasn’t progressing as planned. McVinney was brought in to conduct leadership workshops, and the problem was quickly resolved.

“When I got back to MIT, I asked why we weren’t teaching the same material to our faculty,” Leiserson said. He teamed-up with McVinney, and adapted the industrial setting workshops to academia, and offered the new workshop to people in Leirserson’s lab. Later, Leiserson worked with MIT Professional Education to offer the course on a larger scale.

“We helped MIT faculty leverage their technical skills and that made a huge difference,” Leiserson said. “It was a great opportunity to bring in the emotional and social element to people who love technical things. The participants in the class had a greater appreciation and awareness of how rich and different people can be.”

Leiserson enjoys teaching the two-day course because it provides him with the immediate opportunity to see participants’ response. “We have a unit on mental diversity — different thinking styles. If you’re in engineering or science, it’s not something that you’ve likely come across before. It’s wonderful to see that ‘Aha!’ moment,” he noted.  

“It’s human-centered and it’s fun to put it in a context that people in science and engineering can appreciate and understand. It can affect the way they deal with their environments when they go back to their own universities,” Leiserson said, adding, “The Short Programs course fills the gap. In the course, we role-play fairly common situations such as issues of emotions and motivation — which come up all the time in their work. This helps senior faculty learn about the anxieties of junior faculty, and helps junior faculty learn how to deal with common issues their students may face.”

When the two co-instructors ask participants in their class what they would give them for a grade, over 95 percent say they would mark them an ‘A’ or an ‘A+’.

McVinney and Leiserson have also taught LSF as a custom course to faculty members at Harvard University; University of California, Berkeley; Carnegie Mellon University; and the National University of Singapore.

For more information about MIT Professional Education offerings or the Leadership Skills for Engineering and Science Faculty course, visit the website.