Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why study Systems Engineering?

Systems is probably the most difficult type of engineering at Penn to explain to your family over Thanksgiving Dinner, or even Penn Engineering students outside the systems department. Because systems engineering can be applied to so many different engineering fields and industries; such as information technology, finance, computer science, and manufacturing; the definition can be different for almost any student. However, after three years as a student in the systems department, the easiest blanket definition that comes to my mind is optimizing outputs, given complex inputs.
I applied to Penn Engineering because I was good at math and science in high school, and I knew engineers were capable of making huge contributions to improving quality of life on a huge scale. When considering which major I was interested in pursuing, I wasn’t sure exactly what systems engineering involved, but the wide range of possibilities seemed like the right fit for me since I liked physics, math and innovation more than lab work.
My freshman year in systems was similar to other engineers at Penn, in that I had the same type of general engineering requirements like calculus, physics, computer science and chemistry.  First semester of sophomore year, I quickened my pace even more, and really started the systems curriculum with classes like circuits, dynamic systems, and statistics.
When the middle of my sophomore year came around, I wanted to start my summer internship search. Even though I had experienced some core systems classes, I struggled to decide how I would apply this knowledge. I knew my skills could be widely applicable and I am a fast learner, but my industry choices were not as clearly defined as some other engineering majors who traditionally conduct research in labs or work for chemical companies for internship experience. Systems engineers do everything from work on Wall Street, to build water systems in developing countries, to design airplane routing systems, to developing systems for alternative energy. Confused about where to start, I began by looking for internship postings for companies that looked exciting and enjoyable for me, with an exciting, motivating atmosphere. I applied to many different companies, but ended up receiving an offer from my all-time favorite retail company, based in Philadelphia. I was placed in the Information Technology department, and wasn’t sure exactly what I would be doing in the IT Department of a retail company, but decided that it would be a new and exciting experience even though it was definitely a non-traditional internship for a Penn engineer. Throughout the summer, I was able to visit the distribution centers, learn about their global supply chain, and build models in different software programs to optimize their inventory needs. I never would have dreamed that I would be working in retail, especially for a company that I have been a loyal patron of since I was about 12 years old, but the experience opened my eyes as to how useful and applicable systems (and an engineering education) is. I used skills from Penn classes such as statistics, critical analysis, optimization, project management, and, of course, the ability to think on my feet and be proactive.
After my summer experience, I continued through my junior year, taking core systems classes, but choosing electives that would deepen my understanding of my summer work and also help me learn about different applications of systems engineering as well. The core systems classes like dynamic systems, stochastic systems and control systems are hard to understand before you take them. Dynamic systems involved modeling systems with memory mathematically, like, for example, how an elevator works. Stochastic systems involved modeling systems that behave randomly, using statistics. Controls uses more advanced math to model controllers such as airplane motors and control systems. These core classes give students the fundamentals to develop solutions to general engineering problems. Electives I have enjoyed include classes in Wharton classes like Global Supply Chain and Business Programming, as well as Engineering electives like Product Design and Project Management. These classes are focused on group work and business applications, which I enjoy a lot.
As a rising senior, I am still discovering new applications of my systems education and look forward to taking new electives during my senior year to explore which industry is best for me. I’m glad that the systems curriculum is challenging but gives students the opportunity to choose electives and discover what type of systems fits their skills sets and interests (though, I wish more transportation and manufacturing classes would be offered!). With the constantly changing global environment and economy, systems engineering is a good choice because of the endless opportunities to apply your systems-thinking skills. It has not been an easy run so far, but I’m confident that it is, and will be, worth the challenge. Because, after all, life is a never-ending series of new, complex problems, right?

Questions for Hilary?  Contact her at

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Reflections from a Senior

Last week I had the great pleasure of watching the 2012 Senior Design Project Competition, which is a series of presentations from the design winners from each of the six engineering departments at Penn.   My mind was totally blown when I was watching some of these presentations and in many cases, demos of really cool products.   I’ve been in Penn Engineering for four years, but I had never seen anything like these before.  Some design projects are extremely innovative.  The winning project this year was called “PVS: Pacemaker Verification System,” from a group of male and female electrical engineering students.  These students designed the hardware and circuitry for a model of a heart, which could be hooked up to a pacemaker to be able to study the effects of a pacemaker on the heart and vice versa.  A lot of the products have great potential for commercial success, and in fact, a handful of Penn Engineering grads each year are known to pursue their senior design projects as entrepreneurs.

To the prospective students who may be reading this, every Penn Engineering student is required to work on a design project their senior year.  To some, it feels like a requirement, but to others, it’s an opportunity to be creative and work on a project you’re passionate about and are 100% in charge of.  Senior design project requirements vary based on the major, but in essence, all senior design projects are innovative and viable product or process design.  The goal of most design projects is to make a product, but in my major specifically, CBE (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering), many of the projects are designs of chemical processes.

To give you some background on me, I’m a senior in CBE, and I’m getting ready to graduate and leave Penn in less than three weeks.  Saying that Penn has treated me well would be a vast understatement.  I’ve had an amazing four years at Penn, and there have definitely have been a few things that have shaped my experience.  The first would be the community within Penn Engineering.  Most Penn Engineers I’ve met are very friendly, helpful people who happen to be extremely bright and hard working.  Yes, engineering is a lot of work and yes, it’s challenging.  But don’t let that scare you out of a social life and extracurriculars!  Penn Engineers are involved in so many different things at Penn and in the Philadelphia community.  I myself am a singer in Counterparts, a co-ed jazz and pop a cappella group.  Whether or not you sing/dance/act, the performing arts shows at Penn are a lot of fun to attend each weekend.  I’ve also gone on three life changing community service trips through Alternate Spring Break, a service organization at Penn that you should check out.

Within the Penn Engineering community, I’m especially grateful to the amazing community of women that I’ve been so lucky to be a part of.  Before Penn officially started, I did the AWE Pre-Orientation (Pre-O) program.  It was a great way to meet and get to know other female engineers, many of whom I’m still friends with as a graduating senior.   Pre-O was also a great way to learn about Penn Engineering and all the different clubs within the Engineering Student Activities Council.  I loved AWE Pre-O so much that I applied for the Board, and I’ve been on the Board organizing AWE events ever since.  In addition, a counselor for AWE Pre-O told me about SWE, The Society of Women Engineers, and I decided to get involved by attending the first general body meeting.  I learned a lot as a Board member of SWE, especially as President last year.  SWE gave me a lot of career resources I’m so thankful for, and a SWE alumna actually helped me get my dream job!

Disclaimer:  Learning IS important, too, of course!  Don’t spend all your time doing extracurriculars and going out with friends.  A Penn education is too valuable to waste. But remember that it’s not only about the tests and problem sets; it’s about what you take away from Penn.  The knowledge and skills you’ll gain from the Penn Engineering curriculum as well as your classmates, mentors, and Professors that you’ll hopefully keep in touch with will be far more valuable to you than any high exam grade.

Okay, I’m finally done rambling about how much I love Penn Engineering, so thanks for reading!  To all the prospective Penn engineering students – if you decide to come to Penn, I’ll see you as an alumna!

[Sheetal Rajagopal, CBE 2012]