Ten Years of Systems Engineering at Stevens

A little more than a decade ago, Clifford G. Geiger '60, formerly Assistant and Acting Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Logistics), approached Dr. Dinesh Verma, then Technical Director at Lockheed Martin Undersea Systems, with a concern.  Throughout a distinguished career in engineering, logistics and program management in support of the U.S. Navy, Geiger had witnessed a decline in the systems engineering capability of industry and government at the same time that advances in technology continued to make systems more complex.  Now many of the more experienced system engineers were reaching retirement age, and industry and government had not adequately invested in the growth of their successors.  

At the time, Geiger was a member of the Stevens Board of Trustees, and his conversation with Verma would lead to a decision to create a graduate program at Stevens that would educate the next generation of system engineers.

With this in mind, Geiger, Verma and Ralph Giffin, now the associate provost of Graduate Programs Enterprise and Industry Professor at Stevens, then with Lockheed Martin, traveled abroad to an industry-supported center focused on Systems and Supportability education and research which was established at a university in the UK. Convinced that the Department of Defense (DoD) would not support a non-US entity thus engaged, Geiger set up meetings for the group with Stevens to get the University involved.

Creating a curriculum in systems engineering was exactly the kind of opportunity suited for Stevens, which has long enjoyed a reputation for innovation and forward-looking commitment to the application of science and engineering to the solution of practical problems.  Systems Engineering focuses on the design, development, integration and test of complex systems.  It works across the traditional engineering disciplines, and includes the human and organizational aspects involved in building systems that work effectively as a whole and that provide capabilities that are more than just the sum of those of their individual parts.

Working with senior VPs and the business unit attorney at Lockheed Martin, Verma was able to secure an "industry sabbatical" – the first of its kind for the corporation. This resulted in Verma sharing his time between the University and Lockheed Martin, eventually joining the Stevens faculty full time.

With no legacy to rely on, Verma said the original team had the freedom – and the need – to create an academic structure from scratch. They worked in close collaboration with partners in industry and government, listened to their needs and developed a product and a program with broad appeal to companies and organizations looking to enhance their workforce for success in an increasingly complex marketplace.

The first class was held in April 2001 with 10 students sponsored by Lockheed Martin and 10 sponsored by the United States Department of Defense (DoD). A decade later Stevens conducts the largest systems engineering program in the United States, teaching more than 1,000 students each year, said Verma who is now a professor and dean of the School of Systems and Enterprises (SSE).

 “Dr. Verma’s experience in academia and industry was critical to the success of the program,” stated Mike Mahon, an alumnus from the first Systems Engineering class.

Kathy Tennar, another member of that first group of students, agreed: “His vision and energy built the program. It was incredibly successful and I’m glad I was a part of it. It’s also great to sit here today, looking back over the last 10 years to see how the program has grown.”

“When you look at the number of sponsors and partnerships and networks of schools involved, it has grown so dramatically over a short period of time and is extremely well-received by the people who have participated,” said Jack Irving who serves as executive liaison to the SSE and has been a member of its Advisory Board since the beginning.

In a recent interview Irving made the strong point that the participants in the program are not limited to systems engineers and that students come from human relations and finance backgrounds as well. Irving said he was recently interviewed by a government agency conducting a background check on a prospective employee who was to be granted a high security clearance.

“Turns out he was one of the original people in the systems engineering course offered ten years ago. He is a finance professional with a master’s degree in systems engineering who was led to this job with the government. Talk about an impact on a person’s career.”

The program was such a success that Stevens created a new school, The School of Systems and Enterprises, in 2007 with systems engineering at its core.

“There has been a significant transformation,” said Verma, who described creating a full-fledged school as a “fascinating process.” He said when SSE was launched it was about 90 percent education and 10 percent research where as today the school is seeing more of a balance between the two.

Verma says the advancements over the last decade have been a “labor of love” that were accomplished through collaboration with their clients in government and industry. Those relationships and other strengths held by SSE led to Stevens being awarded the nation’s only DoD University Affiliated Research Center to focus on System Engineering research. The designation was given in 2008 with Stevens serving as the lead university in the SERC, with USC serving as its principal collaborator, in coordination with 17 other collaborator schools throughout the United States.

As a perfect example of just how far the program has come and its wealth of resources, during its anniversary month, SSE is offering a wide variety of programs including leadership webinars and a lecture on challenges in innovation. A complete list may be found here: http://sse.stevens.edu/nc/about-sse/news-and-events/events/

One of the great appeals of SSE is that is employs an open academic model that truly has a global reach and a wealth of instructors that have real-world experience.

To look at the list of faculty for SSE is an impressive who’s who of Ph.D’s and former executives with resumes that include noted institutions like the Aerospace Industries Association, Bell Laboratories, the Lockheed Martin Corporation, the Department of Defense and numerous others. These industry experts and practitioners, researchers and academics help create a diverse and engaged community.

“These people have huge and deep experience,” says Irving. “That is one of the SSE keys to success that it is taught not just by college professors.”

Since its inception, one of the things SSE has done well is adapt to the changing workforce and global community. This is accomplished not only by the dedicated faculty but Stevens itself which realizes the next generation of engineering leaders must think and work in a world where globalization, technology, quality, complexity, and productivity are the key business drivers.  

The program and school have also received numerous other awards and are affiliated with several professional societies.

Stevens has developed an aggressive and inventive family of academic programs for these needs.   These programs are all designed to operate at the interface between traditional engineering and business to solve the complex challenges of the 21st century.

“There is nobody else that compares with us,” says Dr. Mike Pennotti, SSE Associate Dean for Academics and a member of the team since the beginning.  “We are widely recognized and widely respected.”
Lou Kratz echoes that statement. The Vice President of Logistics and Sustainment for Corporate Engineering and Technology at Lockheed Martin, and one of the first sponsors of this program 10 years ago, said he is occasionally approached by other institutions looking to train workers in systems engineering, but none come close to the Stevens credentials.

“We continue to rely on Stevens due to their superior attention to the life cycle, flexible certificate and degree programs, and practical approaches,” he said.
That is gratifying to all those involved in SSE, but not content to rest on their laurels, they are continually working toward expanding and evolving the program.

Occasionally, however, the pioneers, the ones who were there in the beginning a decade ago will reflect fondly on what they helped create. Irving compares it to a “ragtag group of zealots trying to change the world” much like a Silicon Valley startup.

“This still keeps me excited,” said Irving. “When I sit on the porch with my grandchildren on my knee, this is the story I will tell them.”