16.842 | Fall 2015 | Graduate

Fundamentals of Systems Engineering


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session


Complex aerospace and related systems like aircraft, satellites, ships, ground vehicles and launch vehicles consist of thousands of different parts that all work together to achieve one or more value-added functions. Examples of such functions are transporting people and goods from one place to another or gathering and disseminating information from remote locations. The parts can be hardware, software or “humanware”. Humans are indeed an integral part of these systems as designers, operators, passengers and maintainers. This also applies to other non-aerospace systems such as complex consumer products, medical devices and so forth.

We use the term “stakeholders” to identify people and organizations that have an interest in the system’s success. Systems Engineering is a discipline whose aim it is to coordinate all design and management activities during technical projects in a way that the outcome meets requirements and that these requirements satisfy stakeholder needs. In other words systems engineering is about designing and managing the parts, their interfaces and their collective behavior in a way that produces the intended outcome.

Best practices and formal methods of systems engineering have emerged since the 1950’s and have been codified in a number of standards and handbooks, including:

These standards are very helpful in giving structure and consistency to the systems engineering process. In this class we will learn about the most important standards and the major steps and methods that support the design and management of aerospace systems. Given the fact that this is a 6-unit / 5-ECTS-credits class, this introduction will necessarily be cursory and provide a general overview, rather than an in-depth treatment. Skillful and experienced systems engineers acquire their craft over the course of many years by participating and leading numerous projects. Hence, this class should be considered merely as a “door opener” to the world of systems engineering.

Unfortunately, the current state of knowledge and recommended practices in systems engineering are far from perfect. If they were we would not witness cost and schedule overruns in many aerospace projects (such as the recent Boeing 787 Dreamliner project) and major accidents such as aircraft crashes1 and launch vehicle failures2 would not exist. Indeed, as aerospace system’s performance has increased dramatically they have also become more complex, and so has the challenge of designing and managing them.

In other words Systems Engineering is evolving and we are still grappling with significant challenges such as making these systems more affordable and user friendly, while ensuring system safety in all operating modes. As a result new approaches to systems engineering such as the DARPA META approach and Model-Based-Systems-Engineering (MBSE) are emerging and these are also covered briefly in the class. The purpose of Meta for example is to avoid the costly design iterations and late “surprises” during system testing by applying a new set of computer-based systems engineering tools. The key idea of MBSE is to replace documents (on paper or in electronic format) with executable models.

Learning Objectives

The students in this class will be able to achieve the following learning outcomes:

  • SE1: Describe the most important Systems Engineering standards and best practices as well as newly emerging approaches.
  • SE2: Structure the key steps in the systems engineering process starting with stakeholder analysis and ending with transitioning systems to operations.
  • SE3: Analyze the important role of humans as beneficiaries, designers, operators and maintainers of aerospace and other systems.
  • SE4: Characterize the limitations of the way that current systems engineering is practiced in terms of dealing with complexity, lifecycle uncertainty and other factors.
  • SE5: Apply some of the fundamental methods and tools of systems engineering to a simple cyber-electro-mechanical system as a stepping stone to more complex and real world projects.

Note: It is not an explicit objective of this class to prepare students for the Certified Systems Engineering Professional (CSEP) examination. However, students are encouraged to pursue this certification on their own should they choose to do so3.


Our main “textbook” for the class will be the NASA Systems Engineering Handbook, NASA/SP-2007–6105, Rev. All students taking this class will have read the textbook in its entirety by the end of the term.

Class Format

The class consists of five pedagogical elements that are interwoven to maximize the use of individual, group and class time. These elements are lectures, assignments, readings, exams and the design competition. The overall structure of the class following the “V-Model.”

  1. Lectures: The lectures will last 2 hours (including breaks) and will present some of the key ideas and concepts for particular steps of the systems engineering process. The lectures will be held on Fridays and will roughly follow the “V” model of systems engineering. Lecture notes will be posted on the course site the day of the lecture. During the lecture we will ask concept questions online4 which are used to both check conceptual understanding as well as for taking attendance.
  2. Assignments: Small teams of students will do the assignments. Each team will turn in one deliverable per assignment with all team members that contributed clearly identified. The assignments will be scheduled such that they are more or less synchronized with the class materials. The assignment teams will have a team size of five (5) and there will be a total of five (5) assignments over the course of the semester. Student teams will be primarily formed separately for MIT and EPFL students. However, depending on the number of participants at both schools we may allow mixed teams.
  3. Readings: The readings in this class are of two types. First, we will assign weekly readings from the NASA Systems Engineering Handbook and potentially other standard SE texts to supplement the class materials. You can expect to read about 30–40 pages per week in this fashion. It is important to read ahead of class to get more from the lectures. Second, we will have one or two journal or conference papers per week as assigned post- reading. These post-readings will be discussed during lecture and are not mandatory but are intended to provide a fresher and more in-depth perspective compared to the SE standard texts.
  4. Exams: There will be two examinations in this class. The first will be a written on-line quiz where students show their understanding of key SE concepts. This exam will be administered about two-thirds through the semester once the bulk of the SE theory has been covered. The quiz will be open-book and open-internet. There will also be a short individual oral examination (20 minutes) at the end of the semester, which will take the form of a general discussion about SE fundamentals and its potential future applications.
  5. Design Competition: Students will prepare a PDR-level design for the 2016 Cansat Competition through their assignments. The final deliverable will be a 30-minute PDR presentation given as a team. As a result of the final deliverable the three top teams at MIT and EPFL, respectively, will be invited to apply to the actual Cansat 2016 competition, should they choose to do so.

Flow chart of V-Model.

Fig.1: The structure of the 16.842 / ENG-421 class follows the “V” model. Session numbers are indicated with a number between 1–12. (Courtesy of Prof. Olivier de Weck.)


The grading will occur on the letter scale A-F following standard MIT grading policy (A is the best) and on the 1–6 grading scale at EPFL. The grade conversion table below shows the corresponding grades in the different grading systems. The Northern America scale applies at MIT. The EPFL scale obviously applies at EPFL.

EPFL Scale 6 5.5 5 4.5 4 3.5 3 2.5 2 1.5 1 N/A
North America Scale A A- B B- C C- D F F F F Absent
ECTS Scale A B C D E F F F F F F Absent

The grade itself will be composed as follows:

Group Assignments A1-A4 (Total of 4; 12.5% Each) 50%
Group Assignment A5 (PDR Presentation) 20%
Written Quiz 10%
Oral Exam (Incl. 2-page Reflective Memo) 10%
Active Class Participation5 10%


There will be the following assignments in this class:

A1 (Group) Team Formation, Definitions, Stakeholders, Concept of Operations (CONOPS) 12.5%
A2 (Group) Requirements Definition and Analysis Margins Allocation 12.5%
A3 (Group) System Architecture, Concept Generation 12.5%
A4 (Group) Tradespace Exploration, Concept Selection 12.5%
A5 (Group) Preliminary Design Review (PDR) Package and Presentation 20%
Quiz (Individual) Written Online Quiz 10%
Oral Exam (Individual) 20-minute Oral Exam with Instructor and 2-page reflective memorandum 10%

1To be fair, the safety record of commercial aviation has improved dramatically since the 1960s.

2The most recent example is the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch failure on June 28, 2015.

3See International Council on Systems Engineering for more details about certification.

4The concept questions are administered using Google Forms. Students respond by using a short URL from their laptops, tablets or mobile phones in real time.

5Measured based on concepts question responses, class attendance and in-class contributions

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2015
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Design Assignments
Written Assignments
Lecture Videos
Instructor Insights