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?

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