ESD.00, Introduction to Engineering Systems, offers undergraduates a taste of the real world

Examines how to tackle problems in large, complex systems such as energy, environment, health care and more.


Introduction to Engineering Systems, ESD.00, the only undergraduate course offered by the MIT Engineering Systems Division (ESD), offers first- and second-year students the experience of taking an interdisciplinary approach to problems in large, complex systems such as energy, environment, health care, manufacturing, transportation and communications.

Critical contemporary issues within these systems involve not only technology, but also people and their needs and behaviors. As a result, successful design, operation and problem-solving require participation of multiple disciplines: engineering, management and social science.

Founded in 1998, ESD brings together engineers, managers and social scientists to apply their expertise and ideas to those large systems, seeking to solve the most difficult, complex problems in the world.

ESD.00 gives students the opportunity to tackle some of these big problems. The course “gives students a sense that what they learn at MIT could have relevance to the real-world problems they came here to study,” says Joseph Sussman, ESD interim director, professor of engineering systems and civil and environmental engineering, and co-lecturer for ESD.00. “As they take more advanced subjects, they will have had exposure to a class that demonstrates an integrative approach.”

Sara Comis, a junior in mechanical engineering, chose to take ESD.00 last year to learn about that approach. “ESD.00 provides the side of engineering most people don't talk about,” she says. “Engineering is not just hands-on, but it's also the way you think. Systems thinking has a lot to do with logic and stepping through the process of creating something or thinking about a complex issue.”

ESD.00 students learn in class about methodologies used to understand and analyze complex systems — system dynamics, uncertainty and causal networks. These provide tools for studying feedback, non-linearity and other system characteristics. Students also work in small, faculty-led groups to complete projects based on real-world problems.

“We introduce theory — well-known methods developed and used in industry and the world — and ground that with real-world applications,” says Afreen Siddiqi, research scientist at ESD and co-lecturer for ESD.00. “Each team has a different project, and the whole class gets together for lectures on concepts and methods.”

ESD.00 offers a different selection of projects each semester. Last spring, the students chose projects in three areas:

  • Transportation: a comparison of air and high-speed rail transportation in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, including environmental effects and cost
  • Communications: a study of the Digital Divide — how and where people use high-speed Internet access in the U.S.
  • Health care: an evaluation of the costs and benefits of deploying a diagnostic technology for stroke patients

ESD.00 provides students with a basic understanding of concepts related to complex sociotechnical systems as well as practice in applying the concepts to real-world situations. In the process, Sussman says, students also learn skills that will prove useful in their careers: working with a group and communicating their results in presentations and reports.

A short video about the course is currently available on TechTV.


Topics: Education, teaching, academics, Engineering Systems, Students, Undergraduate

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