Faculty Focus: Sylvia Palm

From Robots to Real Disasters, Sylvia Palm Finds New Ways to Inspire


By Amanda Agatstein |   October 2010

Sylvia Palm , Faculty

BAE Systems' Director of Business Process Improvement Sylvia  Palm knows that helping students find passion in their school work takes a  little innovation. As a professor in the  School  of Undergraduate Studies, Sylvia works  hard at motivating both her UMUC students and area high school students to take  a vested interest in their studies. She shows them the ins and outs of engineering  and information assurance fields through hands-on experience and real-world  examples.

One  of Sylvia’s greatest passions is showing high school students the fun and  exciting side of engineering as a judge for FIRST Robotics Competitions (FRC).  Teams of students from around the globe compete to build 100- to 120-pound  robots that can complete a certain task. She likes that the competition is  referred to as “a varsity sport of the mind.”

“Teams  of students use a set of tools to build a robot together in six weeks,” says  Sylvia. “It’s all about the teamwork and partnerships. The best part is, the  rules are a surprise—they change every year!”

The  teams that demonstrate the best robot designs, team spirit, professionalism, and the ability to  overcome obstacles win prizes. BAE is an event sponsor, giving a $10,000  donation that funds the teams’ robot-building tool kits. Judging the event is extremely  gratifying for Sylvia, because she enjoys helping teens discover the world of  engineering as they learn from the pros. They get to show off the results of  their hard work and reap the rewards, which can encourage them to think of  engineering as a possible career path.

Subject matter rooted in real life is much more enticing to  her UMUC students, too. In Sylvia’s courses, IFSM 432 Disaster  Recovery Planning, IFSM 438 Project Management, and IFSM 461 Systems Analysis  and Design, she strives to ground the content in scenarios her students can  identify with. Her aim is for them to be able to apply newfound knowledge to  their current or future careers.

“My  classes analyze real situations,” says Sylvia. “We look at Hurricane Katrina and  examine the photos and studies about what happened. It’s the same with the  September 11th response—we discuss what Verizon did and how communication was  restored. Most of my students work full-time and take evening classes, so they  want to hear real-life examples they can relate to.”

In  2005, Sylvia and several colleagues traveled to South Africa to  assess the post-Apartheid job market and offer advice on education. After  Apartheid, many adults were left without the level of education they needed to  qualify for all the newly available jobs. After a university study was  conducted, Sylvia and her team gave recommendations to educators and officials on  how to best remedy the problem.

“During  Apartheid, there were no jobs,” says Sylvia. “After it ended, there were many  jobs, but so many people were uneducated and unqualified for them. We told  educators and officials in South    Africa about methods they could use to  effectively and quickly bring these people into the fold.”

As  Sylvia Palm continues to make an impact on her UMUC students and the young, future  engineers of the world, she is also taking the next step in her own education.  She is now writing the dissertation for her doctoral degree in business  administration.

“I  have just one more class left,” she says. “How do I juggle it all? I don’t  know; it’s getting hairy!”