Dr. Jon Wade is focused on giving systems engineers the knowledge they need to succeed in an abbreviated amount of time.
Dr. Wade, research professor and division director of systems and software engineering and chief technology officer for Systems Engineering Research Center (SERC), has been working on the Experience Accelerator for Systems Engineering Education for a number of years and with a number of student and professional collaborators. The experience accelerator aims to give systems engineers real-world perspectives and knowledge on a wide berth of relevant experiences through an immersive and game-like structure.
What is the latest systems engineering-related research project you've undertaken?
My latest, and most important research project lately has been the experience accelerator. It started through the Defense Acquisition University in SERC, and through the years it has become migrated its way into the university side of things. Some of the universities that are using it are University of Alabama in Huntsville and Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology), and we have some industrial sponsors like Northrop Grumman that use it as well. The thinking behind the experience accelerator is that it takes 20 years for people to become mature systems engineers, and so we're looking at ways that we can accelerate learning in systems engineers and systems leaders.
Can you describe how the experience accelerator can be applied in practice?
The experience accelerator is a fairly broad technology in that it can be used for a wide range of experiences. The model we looked at as an example of what we’re trying to accomplish is the flight simulator. The flight simulator is a great thing because you can expose pilots to events they may see very rarely in their life, but when they do see them they will know how to respond. It's a safe environment where they can make mistakes, but still they gain that emotional learning. That's what we're attempting to do with the experience accelerator. It's turned out to be an interesting journey for us because it's not easy to create an environment where someone can come in, and in a matter of hours experience things that would take years to experience.
Can you talk about how you began this project and how students can benefit from its use?
When we started this, we talked to three subject matter experts who had a combined 100-plus years of designing military aircrafts. We sat down with them and we asked them what you typically see in projects, and we came up with a list of 30 or 40 things that you see quite often. My background is in computing, and it ends up that even there you see the same sorts of delays and project problems like scheduling issues, quality issues, cutting corners, money – the typical things you see over and over again. When students go through this experience in this instance, these are the things they're going to see in real life. They way it works is that you can have discussions with AIs in the accelerator, and the language has been crafted to be what you would normally hear in real life. For example, when you ask somebody if they're behind schedule, they don't say "yes I am and I'll be done in this amount of time." They say "well, we are, but we're doing this and that to catch up." So it'll give you the sorts of excuses and things that you'll actually hear.
When you're in the accelerator, which is browser-based, we capture every click and everything you look at. So we're analyzing the data of how people interact with things. That gives us the ability to decide on certain how certain personalities and people who behave in a certain way will tend to have certain result. As we collect data, we can decide how people think and how they learn and how they reason. Over time, this should allow us to start getting more diagnostic and say to people "if you're doing this, maybe you should start thinking about that or the other thing."
How do you hope your research impacts its field?
If we're going to be successful in education, we need to make it more like real life. We can't educate with antiseptic problems on paper and then give a student an engineering degree. A lot of what engineers do is art and collaboration. It's teamwork. There isn't an engineer who is going to be successful sitting alone in his office where someone gives him problem sets. That's just not the way it works. Employers realize this and they're pushing harder to get students that are able to work in the real world, which is also why internships are so important.
I also believe there is a huge possibility to make industry more like education. Imagine if we were able to do an analysis of what people were doing and suggest learning that would be useful to them – a lecture, someone in their company who is an expert in that space, or even someone on their team who was doing things more efficiently. What if every single day you got instruction and learning like that? Imagine how much better you would be at what you do over time. You still would need to get your foundations at an institution, but that sort of thing would keep you ahead of the curve for quite some time.
What is the biggest challenge you've run into in your research, and how did you overcome it?
One of the challenges is making it realistic enough so that it has that kind of learning experience, but not so realistic that it's as time consuming as a real project. When we were doing this with the Defense Acquisition University, one of the challenges was that they don't have weeks with the students. They may have a couple of hours. They don't even have homework, so it's all in-class learning. With universities, it's been a bit easier because you can give students homework. So with the accelerator, we're trying to make the most of time spent with students in universities and in corporate education, and do it in a way that's meaningful and applicable to the real world.
How do you involve students in your research?
It's been largely a student experience. In the beginning, University of Southern California and Purdue University were partners with us along with Georgia Tech. That went on for a couple years it's shifted to Georgia Tech and Stevens. Here at Stevens, I have students that have done all the work on some of the experiences the accelerator has to offer, and I've only provided some technical direction with respect to developing the environments. The experience accelerator has been about 85-to-90 percent students doing the research, and these have been doctoral students and master's students.
Working on the accelerator helps students really understand systems engineering, which is especially great because some of these students have been very software-oriented students. The School of Systems and Enterprises is unique in that we have both systems and software in one school. It's amazing because both are really trying to do the same thing. So if you're going to be an effective systems engineer, you need to have an understanding of software and software engineering.
What sets the systems engineering program at Stevens apart from other university programs in your research field?
Because it's a place dedicated to systems. We don't silo people into categories like mechanical engineer or systems engineer. We're all together in solving problems. It doesn't matter what your background is. It matters how you contribute to solving problems. We don't do the typical academic stovepiping and I think students feel that. Instead of being an in an environment where you're being pushed off to certain people for certain things, we're all into systems. So we don't have the same barriers and walls.
There are many schools that say they have an industrial and systems engineering department, but if you look at their curricula, they don't have anything that focuses on design or architecture. So they're really industrial engineering. They help you become an analyst or operations researchers. There are very few programs that are focused on design, and I would say we're at the forefront. We know how to blend industrial experience and academic experience, and we're willing to make things work in a way that are relevant to industry.