MIT Perspective on Engineering Systems
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The field of systems engineering has only recently emerged, and as this symposium demonstrates, defies precise definition. But MIT has taken this evolving area to heart, nurturing a new division and encouraging a raft of ventures that in their execution, may help shape the field for the next century.
An MIT freshman in 1900 had some very specific requirements to fulfill for graduation, and to prepare for a responsible role in society, says Subra Suresh. Courses included mechanical drawing, military science and rhetoric. These choices became richer over time, with the addition of hundreds of engineering faculty, dealing increasingly with the sciences. Suresh traces how over many decades an engineering concentration on metallurgy shifted from studying mining (iron), to aviation (aluminum), plastics, electronic materials and then biological materials. But at each step, he notes, MIT “always lagged behind about 10 years” in what it taught students.”
The Engineering Systems Division (ESD) is an attempt to “train people the right way.” The curriculum brings the basic rules of nature into engineering practice, and applies discoveries to products and processes that impact people. Students must take into account the “long term societal impact.” ESD is needed to link complex issues along technological and social dimensions. The modern engineer must create new ideas and technologies, and reinvent tools and technologies from earlier times -- as Suresh puts it, “Fix problems associated with the greatest achievements of the 20th century.”
Yossi Sheffi fine tunes the picture, enumerating the key domains under the ESD umbrella, as well as the approaches faculty have adopted, in research, teaching and real-world projects. The primary distinction between other engineers and ESD engineers, Sheffi notes, is that “we try to look at the big picture.” So ESD focuses on critical infrastructure (water, transportation), such extended enterprise as supply chain management and global factories; energy sustainability and health care delivery. To get a handle on such unwieldy subjects, professors examine the human-technological interface, and delve into uncertainty, dynamics, design and implementation, networks and flows, and policy and standards.
MIT’s “engineers without labs” are seeking to “develop insights, principles and tools across all systems,” forging partnerships in industry, around the world. ESD students and faculty must get out in the field, says Sheffi, not just to fulfill course requirements but in order to tackle significant global problems, and to find solutions that are sustainable in terms of social equity, economic development and environmental impact. ESD values and accepts “intellectual risk,” meaning issues that may appear unquantifiable or vague, even without solution, and understands that problem solving means respecting and bringing together all disciplines, including the social sciences and management.
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