Wednesday, October 7, 2009

SDM provides common language, practice space, feedback - SDM Pulse Fall 2009

By Ellen G. Czaika, SDM ’08

Editor’s note: Ellen G. Czaika recently served as a teaching assistant for the System Design and Management Program’s core course in systems engineering.

Ellen G. Czaika
MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) Program teaches and develops systems thinking as a formidable approach to large, complex, globally relevant problems. SDM matures systems thinking and systems engineering skills by establishing a common vocabulary among students, giving them space to practice, and providing feedback and guidance within an international context.

Each SDM cohort represents nationalities and cultures from all over the world, with backgrounds in multiple areas of science and engineering, and in various types and sizes of firms and organizations. SDMers have an average of 8-10 years of work experience, replete with interesting observations, experiences, and lessons learned. This international constitution and disciplinary diversity necessitate the use of a common vocabulary, as students often start off using similar words to describe different concepts or a variety of words for the same concept. The common language establishes a community wherein students can practice and receive feedback; it is used throughout the SDM core curriculum (including the course in systems engineering).

Project work in SDM’s carefully designed core classes provides opportunity for practice. Each of the projects tackled in the systems engineering class addresses a complex, real-world problem that requires students to dive into the inner workings of a system—and to explore the system’s interactions with its surrounding context or ecosystem. The concreteness of the problems complements the fundamentals taught through course lectures and supplemental readings.

Students choose teams, then identify a globally relevant complex problem for another team in the class to address. This structure is unique to the systems engineering class and creates an added layer of learning because the team proposing the problem serves as the stakeholder representative to the team working on the problem.

In proposing a project, each student team assesses a problem for its level of complexity and impact—and also to ensure the problem involves human components such as cultural factors and government regulation. Three of the 16 projects undertaken this last semester involved an energy-efficient household, a nationwide health information network, and traffic congestion in Los Angeles.

Throughout the semester, each student team meets with its faculty advisor and its student consultant team. Midterm progress reports and final presentations to the class and a team of judges emulate realworld presentations to customers. Delivered over the course of two extended class periods, the final presentations provide juxtaposed examples of the systems engineering tools utilized in 12-16 diverse problems and contexts. Questions and discussions about the project work and the teams’ application of the fundamentals provide feedback to student practice. The opportunity to learn was increased significantly because all of us used the common SDM language.

As a student in this class, I found that working on my team project—clearing the ground of land mines left behind after wars—helped me better understand complex interrelationships in systems problems and the nuances of stakeholder needs. The military has several solutions for detecting and clearing mines during conflicts, but these solutions are expensive and/or difficult to learn to use. Our project specifically focused on the communities in former war zones and how they can clear their own land effectively, safely, and inexpensively.

I loved that this project addressed a real human need and did so from the point of view of the true beneficiary: people who want to walk safely through their fields and streets. In addition to considering technology, reliability, and usability issues, we also had to consider affordability, the cultural preference for employing humans rather than machines, and the insidious creativity that mine makers employ to disguise and build land mines.

More pieces fell into place in my understanding of systems engineering this summer when I served as the teaching assistant for this class. The SDM ’09 cohort came up with a new set of projects for each other, which included the projects noted above, plus reducing waste in the medical industry, addressing open-seas piracy, educating engineers using a systems approach, and modernizing the income tax system, among others.

Interestingly, this year we had four teams that each addressed different elements of the challenge presented by alternative fuel vehicles. Observing the subtleties of how different teams approached not completely distinct problems in distinctly different ways enhanced the learning experience, adding a layer of nuance. Faculty and student questions provided feedback to the class teams’ practice, further refining understanding.

SDM has been an incredible experience for me; it has both broadened and deepened my thinking while providing a language and structure to guide me in communicating these thoughts, space in which to practice, and valuable feedback. And, very importantly, SDM has introduced me to a community of people from around the world who share a systems thinking mindset and global awareness. SDM truly creates cohorts of students equipped to apply systems thinking to the world’s most pressing problems.

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