Thriving systems engineering program unique across engineering institutions, new department head says

Members of the Department of Systems Engineering staff and faculty pose in front of the CSU Engineering Building, fall 2019
Members of the Department of Systems Engineering staff and faculty pose in front of the CSU Engineering Building, fall 2019

As the first department head for the newly created Department of Systems Engineering, Woodward Professor of Systems Engineering Tom Bradley faces more than a few challenges. Chief among them: the increasing importance of systems-style thinking at every level of research, teaching, and innovation.

“People are so hungry for this skillset, and industry is so hungry for engineers who are engaged intellectually,” said Bradley. “Our objective is to change the way institutions and industry train and educate students and their workforce.”

Challenges for the university affecting the department now

Bradley and the department have their work cut out for them with shifting demographics, a potential drop in undergraduate enrollments in the next decade, and increasingly complex engineering projects.

Tom Bradley, Woodward Professor of Systems Engineering and systems engineering department head
Tom Bradley, Woodward Professor of Systems Engineering and systems engineering department head

“The Department of Systems Engineering is trying to address the challenges that public land-grant university models will face in the next decade, and we’re trying to solve them now,” said Bradley.

Educational institutions across the world have actively moved to a more applied model for undergraduate and graduate work, but to a large extent not with doctoral programs. The department is working to change that perception, by building an innovative program of systems engineering education and research unique across academia.

With unique degree programs such as the Doctorate of Engineering in Systems Engineering and a robust mixture of online and on-campus learning opportunities, the program engages both conventional graduate students and professionals who already work in industry. The programs offer students the opportunity to do more practical research and apply it in their current positions.

“We are telling professionals and students to come back and earn your graduate degree, your field has advanced and so have you,” said Bradley. “We will help you build the skillset of innovative and applied systems engineering research. “

Leading an expanding systems engineering department

The rapidly expanding systems engineering program has had an electrifying year. It has several new faculty members, strong increases in student numbers, and was elevated to being a full department in the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering this past July.

Bradley has been the acting director of the program since Ron Sega, co-founder and former director of the program, took a leave of absence this spring.

As a key contributor to the program, Bradley has taught classes including systems architecture, advanced dynamic systems, and integrated modeling and simulations. His research experience in energy, aerospace, and transportation systems incorporates the tools of systems engineering.

He has served as a faculty advisor for Colorado State University’s student-led EcoCAR project, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, where multiple disciplines are important to success.

“Tom has been an asset to the college since he joined CSU in 2008,” said David McLean, dean of the college. “His leadership will be very valuable as we continue to grow a nationally recognized systems engineering department.”

Student representation across global industries

Many systems engineering students use their research and educational opportunities to move further up in their positions, and to change the lives of those around them.

Recently, two systems engineering Ph.D. candidates and their faculty advisor won awards for their papers, one paper about bringing systems thinking to project management and the other about using a systems model to support wildfire detection. Both papers, and future research on the projects, are changing how industry approaches engineering in complex problems.

With a strong offering of online and on-campus courses, the department has a distinct advantage: Students are not bound to a local campus. Where many institutions feature only in-person classes in specific regions, students from anywhere can take systems engineering courses and do research.

Bradley pointed to one doctoral student who, after earning degrees at other institutions, came to the program to do conduct more research. Working at NASA-Goddard in Maryland, only an online program would allow the student to work, do research, and earn a degree.

The student has become an important part of highly public NASA projects like Artemis, the planned return to the moon in the 2020s. To Bradley, student achievements like this highlight a needed transformation, and the systems department is in a perfect place to lead the effort.

“We have to change the industry and academic perception that online students aren’t as important as on-campus students, or that grad students who do coursework while they are at work in industry aren’t doing real research,” said Bradley. “Our reach is not just Colorado, it’s California, Washington, Hong Kong—our students’ stories are so much more dynamic and engaged globally.”