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The big picture

For engineers life has become increasingly complicated in the new environment of nanotechnology, lean manufacturing, and rapid product design.
University Business, January 2016

For engineers, life has become increasingly complicated in the worlds of nanotechnology, lean manufacturing, and rapid product design and development. We learned from our research that engineering education can no longer deploy conventional, isolated solutions. Indeed, there is rarely an easy, one size fits all, cookie cutter answer in an environment that has uncountable moving parts and continuous technological change and innovation.

In the wake of this post-modern industrial Systems Engineering has evolved into a more rigorous, multidisciplinary, interprofessional field of study that focuses on the “Big Picture”. From a universal perspective, The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) denotes the work of Systems Engineers as an “overall process of defining, developing, operating, maintaining, and ultimately replacing quality systems. While other engineering disciplines concentrate on the details of individual aspects of a system…systems engineering is concerned with the integration of all of these aspects into a coherent and effective system”. Integrating the various engineering disciplines prepares Systems Engineers to be well rounded and better prepared to solve problems from totally different angles. Simply put, Systems Engineers take projects from concept to production – while improving design, functionality, productivity, and maintenance of complex manufacturing systems.

With complexity come opportunities for new collaboration among systems engineering team players who represent a rich diversity of experiences and analytical tools. These integrated teams move nimbly from the architectural design stage to the remote control of intricate mechanical, electrical, and data systems that keep our campuses ticking. Big picture Systems Engineering thinkers depend on big data analytics, agile project management, and business process streamlining to stay ahead of the technical and scientific curve. No wonder that Systems Engineers earn highly paid and top ranked hot jobs according to CNN Money, PayScale, and Indeed.com.

In our 360 degree environmental scan, we were first drawn to the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey – a Systems Engineering trend setter. Stevens offers a wide array of state of the art Systems Engineering programs, like Socio-Technical Systems Engineering, Space Systems Engineering, Systems Analytics, and Systems Security Engineering. We learned from Stevens Systems Engineering leaders that the best programs are “designed by practitioners for practitioners”.

At the University of Arkansas Little Rock, faculty are vetting the next wave of Systems Engineering team leaders. UALR students and faculty work on solutions to complex, hands on capstone projects by deploying creative engineering techniques. These senior capstone lab experiences include emergent Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) eCommerce technologies, wireless health monitoring, and automated airport management systems. Further and significantly, we learned from UALR Systems Engineering thought leaders that “the disciplines of mechanical and electrical engineering remain vital for tackling the problems of today. At the same time, the tools that underpin systems engineering are increasingly needed to solve the complex problems facing 21st century society”.

At the National Graduate School of Quality Management, best quality measurement practices are instilled in students to solve practical challenges in the global business and industrial marketplace. NGS President, Dr. Clint Miner, put it nicely this way, “the education landscape is changing: students and employers are demanding a direct connection between learning and success in the workplace. Maintaining the status quo will not lead to success; today’s professionals must continually invest in updating their knowledge and skills”. Uniquely, NGS creates innovative models with significant enterprise-wide applications while providing students with behavioral, analytic customer service, and leadership skills required to achieve measurable results.

Beyond faculty research interest and student educational aspirations, Systems Engineering employers value a more holistic view of engineering solutions - balancing optimization of cost benefits, risk and return on investment, and manufacturing quality control. That is the reason why high performing Systems Engineering programs have established close working relationships with their Systems Engineering employer advisory boards – credible sources of independent curriculum validation, faculty development, student internships and rewarding gainful career.

—James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Provost's Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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