Rebirth of Reason


University of Florida Outreach Engineering Management
by Luke Setzer


A young man once asked an old sea captain, "What do you do when you find your ship caught between a storm on one side and jagged rocks on the other?"  The captain answered, "What you do is not get yourself into that situation in the first place."  This article aims to help those considering a popular engineering management program to keep out of a potentially rough and dangerous situation.  Laying a solid intellectual foundation and mapping a plan from start to finish before committing to this program will go a long way toward keeping you afloat once you set sail into the thick of it.

Engineering and Mathematics

The field of engineering seeks to take existing knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, and apply it for human use.  Webster defines it as "the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people."  While the creative aspect of engineering remains indispensable for design work, the field's mathematical analysis actually makes engineering function properly.  Accurate mathematical models demonstrate whether or not a given idea will succeed or fail at producing the intended result with a given degree of certainty.  Engineering projects show no forgiveness in this regard, so any aspiring engineer must have a solid grasp of mathematics to succeed.  As one engineering professor stated, "'Close' does not count when your bridge falls down!"

A typical engineering curriculum at an accredited university will thus include a solid foundation in mathematics.  Courses generally include three semesters of calculus and at least one semester of differential equations.  However, not all engineering disciplines include supplemental courses such as statistics or finite mathematics.  Thus, a student of engineering can conceivably complete a four year baccalaureate program in engineering without any exposure to these subjects as formal, standalone courses.

This can play havoc on those graduates who wish to continue their education with a master's program.  Although typical graduate engineering programs require solid scores on entrance examinations such as the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) General Test, these tests do not always tell the whole story of a candidate's qualifications.  Other measurements, such as undergraduate Grade Point Average (GPA) and actual courses on a transcript, can also omit key information.  Even live interviews can fail at the task of properly screening candidates and making them fully aware of what they need to succeed in a graduate program.

These programs can prove costly, often running into the tens of thousands of dollars to complete and requiring many months of hard work.  Walking into such a den of potential misery unarmed can prove unbearably stressful.  In particular, knowing or not knowing all the mathematics one needs to know to grasp the new concepts taught in these higher level graduate programs can literally make or break the success potential of a graduate student.  So taking proactive steps to educate oneself on these concepts, regardless of the soothsaying of school administrators to the contrary, becomes paramount to one's sanity, self-esteem, and net worth.

Engineering Management

While lay people generally think of engineers as gear heads and computer geeks, reality tells a different story to those honest enough to listen.  Engineering requires a great deal of integrated thinking, accounting for all parts of a system and how that system behaves as a whole rather than just how its gears, bells, and whistles behave.  This especially holds true of industrial engineers, who work specifically on designing, maintaining, and improving systems such as facilities and supply chains.  As one bumper sticker put it, "Engineers make things.  Industrial engineers make things better."

Operations management, a subset of industrial engineering, seeks to optimize operations of any system under a given set of constraints.  Because this can sometimes involve dramatic situations of life and death, a few novels have even featured central protagonists who work as operations engineers.  Dagny Taggart in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Alex Rogo in Eliyahu Goldratt's The Goal offer two such examples.

For those engineers aspiring to move into management, then, a Master of Science in Industrial Engineering degree specializing in management makes perfect sense.  Such a program would focus on "big picture" level thinking such as operations research, supply chain optimization, organizational behavior, advanced probability and statistics, financial and managerial accounting, business financial management, quality engineering, marketing, and business policy.  But many full time engineers who wish to make this move find it difficult to leave their jobs to spend time and money in graduate school.  Fortunately, both schools and employers have ways to help these employees earn this degree affordably and without job interruption.

One such program comes from the University of Florida in Gainesville.  Called the Outreach Engineering Management (OEM) program, the school literally "reaches out" to students by offering classes one weekend per month in Orlando, central to the state and close to the Orlando International Airport for those students who fly from another area.  The program offers two classes per semester across a total of five semesters with each semester consisting of one engineering course and one business course.  The curriculum represents what such a program would typically offer.  With that said, the remainder of this article seeks to rectify the ignorance with which a typical applicant may apply so that such an applicant can take the extra time needed to prepare fully for this rigorous and sometimes stressful series.

Minimum Preparation

I had a very difficult time with this program although I still managed to pull a "B" grade or higher from every class.  Why?  First, I never had undergraduate statistics.  Although I had some exposure to this subject in my mechanical engineering courses and learned some more through my own study for the Professional Engineer's (PE) licensing examination and the GRE, none of these prepared me for the onslaught of material I experienced in the graduate course on this subject.

Furthermore, I also had no exposure to optimization problems and never even heard of them until I started the program.  For those who share my prior ignorance, these problems involve constructing a mathematical model of a system -- a linear program -- complete with an objective function to maximize or minimize, variables that decide the outcome of that function, and constraints to the values those variables can assume.  While common among industrial engineering majors, mechanical engineering majors such as I had none of that.  So that proved another major hurdle.

Not until after I had completed the third of five semesters of this program did I stumble across a simple and extremely affordable method for candidates to prepare for this material.  So I want to make sure Web surfers who locate this article pay very close attention here.  What I have to share could save you enormous grief.

Two words: Finite Mathematics.

More specifically, pay $34.95 to enroll as a student at MathXL to select the course called Finite Mathematics and work through all the problems.  This broad overview includes the foundations of what you need to know to grasp the more advanced concepts in OEM:

Ch 1: Applications of Linear Functions
Ch 2: Systems of Linear Equations
Ch 3: Matrix Algebra
Ch 4: Linear Programming: A Graphical Approach
Ch 5: Linear Programming: The Simplex Method
Ch 6: Mathematics of Finance
Ch 7: Logic, Sets, and Counting Techniques
Ch 8: Basic Concepts of Probability
Ch 9: Additional Topics in Probability
Ch 10: Statistics
Ch 11: Markov Chains
Ch 12: Game Theory: Two Player, Zero-Sum Games

To supplement these exercises, you can watch videos on the subject at North Carolina State University Online Finite Mathematics.

In addition, if you want to prepare for the GRE, I strongly encourage you to contact your nearest university to learn if it offers preparation courses for standard entrance examinations.  I attended one that University of Central Florida (UCF) offered near my house at its satellite campus and can credit that preparation with my solid high score.  I encourage everyone taking a standard entrance test to do the same.

I will never, ever recommend OEM to anyone who does not take these fundamental preparation steps.

Intermediate Preparation

Those who wish to explore more deeply the foundations of the OEM curriculum can consider courses in the subjects at their local community college.  These often present themselves online so that students never have to set foot on campus, especially in audit mode.  For example, Brevard Community College offers online courses in linear algebra, statistics, financial accounting, managerial accounting, principles of finance, and marketing principles.  Depending on your time, patience, and confidence in your current knowledge, you may want to take one or more of these courses for a grade or simply an audit.  You can also Web surf to find free instructional materials on these subjects.  For instance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Open Course Ware offers a cornucopia of free material such as an entire semester of video lectures on linear algebra. Finally, the Florida Distance Learning Consortium provides a complete listing of all courses available in Florida for remote education.

Maximum Preparation

I run the risk of accusation of overkill with my remaining suggestions.  However, I consider graduate school a battle between student and material.  Thus, I consider every armament the student has another point favoring his victory.  So let me now share some technology that can assist you in winning that war.  You will not learn of these from the OEM professors as they stick with Microsoft Excel Solver, but I still consider them worth investigating.

1. TI-Nspire CAS calculator and software can perform virtually every calculation that you will need in this program except for the worst linear programs that demand Microsoft Excel Solver -- and clever students can probably even circumvent that limit.  I doubt any OEM professors or administrators will have a clue about this wonderful machine as it just recently came to market.  If you have ever used "what you see is what you get" (WYSIWYG) software such as Mathcad, Matlab, or Mathematica, imagine the bulk of the power of those packages squeezed into a handheld calculator.  Alas, I never learned of this tool until near the end of my second semester in OEM, and the long learning curve has still limited my use of it.  But trust me, I have still used it to my fullest advantage for the short time I have had it.  A Google search will yield numerous hits for optimization samples you can download for study.

2. Matlab sells at a steep student discount -- $99 -- for those who send copies of current, valid student identification.  This software package includes an optimization application that new OEM students can surely use to strengthen their grasp of linear programming.

3. Simplex Method Tool provides a free, online way to test your solutions to linear programming assignments.

4. Tutors can supplement your learning.  I located tutors my first two semesters -- a mathematics instructor and a professional accountant -- using personal contacts and library bulletin board flyers.  I also visited my local community college learning laboratory since, as a former student, they offered me these services at no charge.


I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (BSME) in 1988 and felt so thoroughly exhausted that I imagined never returning to school for a graduate degree.  My mind changed around 2005 when I saw a notice in our work daily e-mail announcements bulletin for an overseas internship opportunity.  I got excited about it until I read the last sentence: "Must have master's degree in an engineering discipline."  Humph!  Snobs!  After I overcame my umbrage, I started noticing that more and more job opportunities demanded graduate degrees whereas in the past they did not.  Whether this comes from "degree inflation" or actual needs for advanced education, I do not know.  However, since my employer offered tuition reimbursement as part of my benefits as an employee, I decided to start looking for possible programs.  I let the effort languish for a while due to other life events before finally revisiting the issue in 2006, buckling down, preparing for the GRE and taking it, and looking at various programs of interest.

Several people I knew, liked, and respected recommended OEM to me, and motivated me to make the commitment.  The problem, of course, arose in the fact that these recommendations came from people smarter than I!  So I paid the price for presuming to match their wits.  When I shared this story with an OEM professor in class at his solicitation, he asked me, "So, do you still know, like, and respect these people?"  My silence in response told more of the story than he cared to know.

I hope the reader takes this article to heart and does not have to offer such a silent response when the time comes.  Moreover, I hope this article shows the wisdom of committing to lifelong learning or pacing one's life so as always to advance one's education constantly and enjoyably at one's own natural stride.  I have personally concluded that taking one online course a semester for life on my employer's nickel represents the ideal path in today's world.  Perhaps you will, too.  I look forward to completing OEM and continuing forward with courses in other interests such as business and applied mathematics and eventually earning a Master's in Business Administration (MBA), a Master's in Applied Mathematics, and other degrees, all at my own pace.
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