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What is Systems Engineering?

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

With every technological development–whether it be in the scopes of occupational machinery or personal convenience–comes problems and questions that those in various STEM and accompanying fields dedicate their lives to addressing. The art of hands-on problem solving is a characteristic typically associated with engineers in the STEM realm, although engineering is also stereotyped to be more appropriate for a “techie” (one that is more technologically-oriented) than a “talkie”. Yet, this common misconception may be a factor of students with great communication skills choosing to pursue other careers unrelated to STEM because of their lack of awareness of systems engineering. Systems engineering combines the best aspects of management and hands-on engineering, being a field focused on open communication between customer and constructor, along with the management and oversight of productive teams. The diverse umbrella that is systems engineering, from its artistic to economic characteristics, is something that the aerospace field is sure to see in coming years–and here’s the significance.

Systems engineering first emerged in the 1940s, during World War II, where communication and scientific knowledge went hand-in-hand to create the West’s first missiles and defense systems. Due to its composition of intensive research and direct coordination, systems engineering has since been wildly employed within the United States’ Department of Defense in seeking proactive yet affordable items of security, to name a notable application. Currently, defense and transportation devices are no longer limited to physical contact for communication, making technological integration a difficult task for engineers to assume; what might the DoD seek in these systems? How can machines like tanks become more speed and cost-efficient? What strategies can be utilized to prevent destruction but promote defense and connection? Even in non-military scopes, systems engineering can be seen in any large project such as rocket or website construction. The cross-section of science and communication is truly epitomized in this field, while being crucial in developing machinery, AI, and technological interfaces.

Considering the interdisciplinary nature of systems engineering, why is this important for interested students to strive for and how can this be applied to future aeronautical developments? New technologies that aid our understanding of extraterrestrial survival, along with planetary properties, are developing before our eyes from the satellites we construct to the tourist missions that entrepreneurs fund. Cost-efficient yet complex designs, including CubeSats and SmallSats, may be commissioned by larger space companies such as NASA and SpaceX for smaller organizations or universities. Whether it be full-time employment or an extracurricular commitment, students participating in this role get a true sense of what communication and project management look like because of the several variables that need to be accounted for: customer satisfaction, team member participation, and error maintenance, to name a few. CubeSat-oriented companies, including NearSpace, for example, have experienced tremendous growth in recent years, which also calls for young minds who are able to collaborate, assert their personal standards, and also understand construction from a technological standpoint. Ultimately, systems engineering is a rapidly growing career where students invested in communication and design, along with management and construction, can find a promising future in this field–and we can see the gears turning right now.

In this episode of “Let’s Go to Space: BLUESKY Learning,” Episode 80: On Systems Engineering in Space with Zachary Clarke, we learn about constructing CubeSats and managing projects from a systems engineer’s perspective with the Utah State University student. Mr. Clarke is currently pursuing a masters degree in systems engineering, while also having worked as a head system engineer for ACMES, a student-developed satellite mission, among many other ventures. Not only does he exemplify what it means to be a rounded student in terms of experience and goals, but Mr. Clarke also emphasizes the importance of art and design within STEM fields, and how these should not be viewed as unneeded skills. Mr. Clarke’s closing words on perseverance and time management are certainly good reminders on how to be a successful student and leader both in and out of the classroom, a complement to our own teaching philosophies and mission. Learn more about Zachary Clarke, or visit our other weekly podcasts to hear from other speakers, by clicking the link above. Also make sure to check out our website to learn more about becoming a member of the Aerospace and Innovation Academy, where you can join us in our quest to go to space.

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