An MIT Alumni Association Publication

MIT Alumnus and GM Engineer Returns to Campus to Inspire Student Innovation

  • Meg Murphy, School of Engineering

Will Dickson ’14 has parked General Motors’ first self-driving vehicle, the Cruise AV, on campus and invited MIT students to think flexibly about its design opportunities. “You are future engineers and thought leaders in the area of new machines,” he says. “How do you design future vehicles like this one better for a safe and autonomous experience?”

Fostering innovative thinking is at the heart of Dickson’s career as an innovation champion for General Motors on campus. Dickson bridges the gap between GM’s advanced engineering teams and students on campus by creating opportunities to work on technical problems together. He recruits students, builds partnerships, and scours the MIT startup community and beyond for collaborations both unconventional and fitting.

“I pride myself on attempting nontraditional things and pulling in tons of stakeholders. I am the person trying something first and clearing out the hurdles and blazing new trails,” says Dickson, who studied materials science and engineering at MIT and during graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley before joining GM and thriving in a series of positions, including currently as innovation champion within iHub, General Motors’ innovation incubator and consultancy.

Among other things, Dickson is transcending traditional corporate engagement in higher education with its heavy reliance on job fairs and research sponsorship. He’s instead focusing his energy, which is described as engaging and dogged, on working with students, faculty, and administrators within some of MIT’s most innovative programs.

Real projects and real machines

MIT’s new project-centric cross-departmental program, the New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET), launched as a pilot last year and is redefining engineering education, says Dickson. Its hands-on focus on applying fundamental and systems engineering to real-world projects inspired General Motors to sponsor NEET’s project thread on “Autonomous Machines” this fall. (There are now over 120 sophomores and juniors in this and the other three NEET threads: Clean Energy Systems; Advanced Materials Machines; and Living Machines.)

“I’m excited for you to be exposed to real projects that our engineers are kicking around and looking for a new perspective on,” says Dickson to NEET students in a pizza-filled classroom near the autonomous test vehicle parked outside. “We’re going to bring engineering leaders to campus to see you in action. To see you working on projects. To see you doing stuff in teams. To interact with you.”

One of Dickson’s talents involves helping other young people with engineering backgrounds bridge the gap between technical expertise and creative and meaningful application in industry. “It’s not just about being the smartest person in the room,” he tells the rapt students.

“It’s about who can let the other people talk when they need to. Who can lead? Who can be a great project manager? Who can communicate their technical findings to people without the same background as you? Who can identify the right problem to be solving?”

At 6 feet 8 inches, Dickson towers over most of the young people in the room. He speaks to them with friendly confidence and a level of industry knowledge that sets him apart despite the slim difference in age between he and more on MIT News

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