Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Overview

ESD.04J / 1.041J teaches systems thinking through a class-wide system design project, conducted in a complex technical environment and challenging societal context.

ESD.04J / 1.041J, through lectures and recitation exercises, teaches systems thinking concepts and how one goes about conceiving and approaching complex system design problems. These learnings are then utilized by students as they address a major system design project working as a class-wide team.


  • Systems thinking as an integrative holistic approach to problem solving
  • Basic ideas of design — making good choices among alternatives as a fundamental of engineering
  • Abstracting a complex technical system into quantitative models and/or qualitative frameworks that represent that system
  • Using those models and frameworks to reach effective design decisions
  • Creating a strategy for implementing design decisions
  • Identifying the key system stakeholders and balancing their diverse interests
  • Organizing a set of individuals into an effective consulting team

The class project for Spring 2007 is concerned with designing a system for transporting and storing spent nuclear fuel (SNF). This is an important problem in contemporary society. Nuclear power plants and research facilities around the United States have been producing SNF — as a byproduct of the production of electric power — a quite toxic substance, for some years. Until now, most SNF has been “temporarily” stored on site at the nuclear facilities. The nuclear power plant operators want that material removed. The current plan is to relocate it from about 130 sites around the country to a below-ground repository, thought to be geologically stable, at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Many questions arise as one considers how to proceed. Is it better to move this spent nuclear fuel to Yucca Mountain and store it below ground, or continue to store it on site at the nuclear plants or at other dedicated facilities? Are there feasible means of storing it on site? What are the relative risks of the different options? How does terrorism enter into our design considerations in the post-9/11 era? If we do choose to transport SNF, what mode of transportation should be used and what operating practices are appropriate? Who are the various stakeholders in this issue and how are they differentially affected by various decisions? Who benefits and who pays in the implementation of various strategic alternatives?

Those are but several of the specific questions one might consider in this system design project. But we will also consider the broader context of U.S. energy and environmental policy. Design decisions we make will bear directly on the viability of nuclear energy as a way of meeting the U.S.’s energy needs. And there are environmental issues as well. Nuclear power can be produced without generation of further greenhouse gases, which has implications for global climate change. At the same time, many are concerned with the safety and environmental risks of nuclear power generation.

ESD.04J / 1.041J will address this complex system design question. We will conceptualize and structure the salient issues and move toward developing design alternatives using systems thinking principles, which are critical for understanding and approaching complex sociotechnical systems of the type described here.

This class is appropriate for and accessible to MIT undergraduates, typically juniors and seniors. Some graduate students, especially those interested in an introduction to systems thinking, will find the subject of value as well.

Student work will include various readings and assignments intended to build strength in the fundamentals of systems thinking. A major share of student effort will be embodied in their contribution to the class-wide system design project described above. This includes conceptualization of the key issues, development of strategic alternatives, and ultimately recommendations for a system design. The class will produce an integrated report reflecting its findings and will be asked to present these findings in an oral report as well. So, in addition to learnings in systems thinking and design applied in a complex technical and social environment, students will gain experience in writing and presentation skills, which are needed to succeed in contemporary organizations.

Student Work

Work expected of students is of several kinds:

Written assignments 35%
Project work 45%
Class participation 5%
Midterm examination 15%

Also, reading will be assigned to provide background for the lecture material, the midterm exam and for the project.

Academic Honesty and Performance Policy

The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Engineering Systems Division adhere to the strictest standards of academic honesty. An important aspect of achieving these standards is to be sure that students are aware of expectations of faculty as regards academic honesty. This statement states the faculty’s expectations in ESD.04J / 1.041J.


Assignments performed by students for submission have a dual purpose. They are intended as educational devices, including the teaching of skills such as working in teams. They are also evaluation tools for the faculty in judging the quality of performance of individual students. Our policies are intended to balance these two purposes and, unless otherwise stated, these policies apply to all assignments.

Students can work together to conceptualize general approaches to assignments. However, unless otherwise specified for a particular assignment, the work you submit should be done completely on your own. This includes text, numerical calculations, mathematical derivations, diagrams, graphs, computer programs and output.

This class has group work on project-related activities. Of course, this work is to be done in collaboration with your group mates. It is important that everyone on the group does their fair share of the work. The group collectively should take the responsibility to assure that. Also, each individual has an obligation to carry his or her part of the load in a timely fashion so that the group work does not suffer.

Reference any written source or website you use in your submission.

In-class Exams

All work on in-class exams should be performed only by you. Materials you can bring into the examination will be specified by the faculty for each exam.

If you have any questions about how these policies relate to a specific situation, you should speak to Professor Sussman.

For any use or distribution of these materials, please cite as follows:

Joseph Sussman, course materials for ESD.04J / 1.041J / ESD.01J Frameworks and Models in Engineering Systems / Engineering System Design, Spring 2007. MIT OpenCourseWare (, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Downloaded on [DD Month YYYY].

Course Info

Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Design Assignments
Written Assignments