In Fall 2003, the Big Blue Mars Airplane flight experiment team and the UK Solar Car team partnered UK students and faculty in mechanical and electrical engineering to design complex multidisciplinary systems. To succeed, they needed an understanding of the emerging discipline of systems engineering. In January 2004, Frank Bourne, Ph.D., retired professor of engineering systems at Florida Institute of Technology, visited UK to lead a one-day short course on “Practical Systems Engineering Principles.”
Annual short course offerings led to a new technical elective in systems engineering in 2007, spearheaded by Suzanne Weaver Smith, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director emeritus of the NASA Kentucky Space Grant and EPSCoR Programs. This included lectures on “The Role of Optimization in Systems Engineering,” that were incorporated into NASA’s online “Space Systems Engineering” course in 2011. Today, systems engineering at UK is offered as AER/ME 516, a senior/graduate technical elective for mechanical and aerospace engineering students, and also as part the undergraduate aerospace certificate.
Smith’s career at UK has been hallmarked by her forward-looking work integrating systems engineering into engineering education – chartering a path not only for the university, but for every student that benefitted from the coursework over the last two decades.
“Being among the first universities in the U.S. to offer systems engineering created career opportunities for our students, but also contributed to notable successes in complex multidisciplinary research and student competition projects,” Smith shared.
Since the 30-plus students in the very first systems engineering short course took what they learned and applied it to their projects and careers, hundreds of engineering students have benefitted from UK’s 20 years of systems engineering courses, multidisciplinary experiential education projects, visiting industry experts and returning alums. Below are a few visitor highlights:
- 2015 – Rick Mastracchio, NASA Astronaut, “ExtraVehicular Activity – EVA: Spacesuits – Requirements, Tradeoffs, Solutions,” also the First-Year Engineering presentation, “Astronaut Rick Mastracchio.”
- 2016 – Alumnus L. Berkley Davis, GE Power and Water, “Design Lessons from GE Dry Low NOx.”
- 2018 – Dr. Jeanette Domber, Ph.D., Ball Aerospace, “Ball Systems Engineering,” and a William Maxwell Reed Seminar, “How Systems Engineering Leads to Mission Success.”
- 2021 – Alumnus Allan Brown, Boeing Avionics, “System Engineering in Aerospace.”
- 2023 – Debra Simmons, Northrup Grumman, “James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Observatory Systems Engineering,” and a William Maxwell Reed Seminar, “JWST: Engineering at the Extremes.”
UK Engineering alumni also are leaders in systems engineering. Twyman Clements (co-founder and president) and Jason Rexroat (principal electrical engineer) of local startup Space Tango, visited the AER/ME 516 class in Fall 2023 to share, “Challenges of Cell Growth in Microgravity and Space Tango Experiences.” Their experience provided important insights for the course project to develop a lunar cultured meat production facility to supplement human diets during extended missions. Last year, alumna Tracy Drain, NASA JPL Space Systems Engineer, was also inducted into the College of Engineering Hall of Distinction in 2023 for her career accomplishments.
Over its 20-year history, UK systems engineering has challenged students to apply systems engineering principles and processes to complex multidisciplinary systems from Mars Airplane to Mars Medical, flying taxis and beyond. It is an essential component of the aerospace degree programs established in 2021 and will continue to grow alongside it for the next 20 years.
Jesse Hoagg, Donald and Gertrude Lester Professor and Chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, underscored the importance of systems engineering to the future of the department.
“Systems engineering is a key for success in complex aerospace missions, so offering a course in systems engineering principles and practice is especially important for our students in the new aerospace engineering major.”
**In celebration of its 20 years, Suzanne Weaver Smith requests your systems engineering memories (or career experiences)! Please share via email, at email@example.com.**