By Mark Dwortzan
Jeff Worthey had balanced interests in music and engineering until his senior year in high school, when he received acceptance letters from music schools and the College of Engineering.
“I decided to pursue music, but I cannot say that I was a typical music major,” says Worthey, who eventually earned a master’s degree in music from Yale University. “My elective slots were filled with physics and calculus, and I was more interested in disassembling my flute than practicing scales.”
This mechanical proclivity led to an apprenticeship with a flute maker and a quest for more training in mechanical design that led him to discover a unique academic program at Boston University. Because of this program, Worthey is well on his way to earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering—even though he lacked an undergraduate degree in engineering.
What enabled Worthey to pull this off is the College of Engineering’s Late Entry Accelerated Program (LEAP), which for nearly 30 years has enabled non-traditional students and working professionals to obtain graduate degrees in engineering. Buoyed by a rising tide of interest in engineering in a tight job market, heightened demand for rapid but reliable pathways to career change in an uncertain economy, and word-of-mouth from a growing cadre of satisfied alumni, the program has seen its applicant pool grow by 50 percent and new enrollments double in the past year. Since 2008, applications have grown fivefold and new enrollments have quadrupled.
The LEAP experience is divided into Phase 1, in which students take a core set of 10 to 12 undergraduate engineering courses to get up to speed, guided by one of 12 faculty advisors; and Phase 2, in which students enter a regular master’s degree program in biomedical, computer, electrical, mechanical, photonics, manufacturing, systems, or materials science & engineering.
“To our knowledge, LEAP is the only program of its kind,” says Kirstie Miller, director of Professional Education & Corporate Relations at the College of Engineering. “Some schools accept students from non-engineering backgrounds on an individual basis, but lack the kind of formal program that we have to prepare them for and accept them into graduate study in engineering—and provide ongoing career development as well.”
Known as LEAPers, these students come from diverse backgrounds, from organic farmer to sailor to doctor to lawyer. Some seek a complete change of pace, while others see engineering as a way to augment their current work. Some once considered engineering as a career but got sidetracked by life; others became enamored with engineering after dabbling in several fields.
Why People Make the LEAP
As he concluded his pediatrics residency in Portland, Oregon, Jesse Lock (BME, PhD’11) set his sights on applying the rigorous mathematical principles of engineering to the world of medicine, and ultimately developing technologies to enhance clinical effectiveness. However, he lacked the requisite educational foundation to pursue engineering graduate studies. Then he found LEAP. The program enabled him to catch up on missing undergraduate courses and complete the requirements for a master’s degree in biomedical engineering in less than three years. He remained at BU to earn his PhD and emerged with exciting new work as a physician/engineer.
“I now split my time between working as a pediatrician and acting as Chief Medical Officer for a local startup here in Boston called Etiometry,” says Lock, who founded the company with a group of engineers from BU. “We have had remarkable success applying control engineering principles to complex medical problems, and we’re currently developing decision support tools for clinicians working in critical care environments.”
For Lock, who discovered LEAP while searching the Web for an “academic bridge between medicine and engineering,” LEAP was the only program he could find that offered “the complete package” in short order.
“Graduate education is expensive in terms of both time and money, so the ability to get the majority of the basic engineering curriculum in one or two years was critical,” says Lock. “I really did feel as though I learned the core values of engineering and could jump into any sort of project with minimal additional effort.”
Yasmin Tirado-Chiodini (BME, MS’89), who completed a B.S. in chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico and originally intended to go to medical school, agrees. After attending a summer program at Kennedy Space Center that introduced her to more exciting opportunities in space life sciences, she instead became a LEAPer.
“The program ensured that I got the necessary background to make the switch to biomedical engineering in an efficient and cost effective manner,” says Tirado-Chiodini, who went on to work as a space shuttle project engineer, high tech entrepreneur and business and intellectual property lawyer. “It was truly a seamless transition to biomedical engineering.”
Johnny Napoli, a former English major at North Carolina State University now pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at BU, found LEAP appealing because it not only promised an efficient transition to a technical career, but also the structure and support of a well-established program.
“I could have quit my job and taken whatever engineering courses I would have liked, but I would be hard-pressed to justify that decision, especially since an accredited engineering degree would by no means be guaranteed,” says Napoli, who first learned of the program while serving in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. “With LEAP, I have the benefit of an undergraduate engineering education while receiving a master’s degree in the process.”
Napoli now aims to work for an aviation or aerospace company, and has already netted an internship in the field.
The Benefits of LEAP
While LEAP students hail from many different backgrounds and harbor wide-ranging career aspirations, they have at least three things in common: exceptional academic aptitude, a broad set of knowledge and skills, and a strong drive to succeed.
“The quality of our applicants is very high,” notes Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE), associate dean for Educational Initiatives. “LEAP students typically earn higher GPAs than their classmates. They are mature, highly motivated and approach school deliberately. When you combine the engineering with their breadth and life experience, they make ideal candidates for professional opportunities, demonstrating good communication skills, teamwork and leadership.”
By Commencement last May, at least 70 percent of the LEAP Class of 2012 had already found jobs. LEAP alumni are employed at all levels of responsibility by a diverse set of companies, including The Mathworks, GE Aviation, VMware, EMC, Draeger Medical, Raytheon, Intel and MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
Today there are more than 250 LEAP alumni and 118 current students, and their numbers are growing fast. But they’re much more than just a cohort; they’re a community.
“The greatest strength of LEAP is the community it has created,” Worthey observes.
“Being surrounded by driven, talented LEAPers from diverse backgrounds creates a unique experience and sets LEAP apart from other alternatives.”
To apply for admission to LEAP, prospective students must hold a bachelor’s degree in any field and have received a grade of B or better in a college-level calculus course.