Improving Systems Education and Research at Canadian Universities

In today’s world, products and processes are becoming more complex, and systems engineering is the best method to manage change and complexity.  Students that have academic and experiential capability in systems engineering will be more useful and attractive to potential employers.  Universities that provide a strong program in Systems will attract better students and improve academic and industry collaborations.  Industry and Government will benefit by improved systems development.


Engineering education worldwide has begun to broaden from preparing students for technical careers in a particular discipline to also prepare technical leaders that will develop complex systems or have their “subsystem” fit better into the next higher level system.  Engineers today are expected to be capable in management concepts and social science that encompass supply chains, politics, economics, and customers.  The leading Universities have made cross-functional organizations that often combine engineering, management, and social science into “Engineering Systems” systems-oriented schools.  These organizations can better cut across the more siloed traditional disciplines to offer integrated systems education and research which benefits from discipline fusion.

The forefront of the Engineering Systems Education and Research Universities include MIT ESD, Georgia Tech ISyE, Stevens SSE and SERC, Keio SDM, TUDelft TPM, and others.  There is a Council of Engineering Systems Universities (CESUN) that helps coordinate the development of this field of study, with about 60 universities as members.  SFU and the University of Waterloo are members of CESUN.

engineering systems

Overall I find much of the best Systems content comes from MIT Engineering Systems Department and associated community, such as from Steven Eppinger, or their book on Engineering Systems by de Weck, Roos, and Magee.  There is a lot of other great material out there from many others, but if I had to choose the best Engineering Systems University program, it would be MIT’s ESD program.  MIT’s ESD Strategic Plan is a worthwhile read.  To also see that other regions are also at the forefront of Systems education, the “SDM in Two Minutes” video from Keio University’s program is also worthwhile.

There is also strong Systems Engineering Professional Education Programs available from places like Caltech or Georgia Tech, as many organizations send mid-career engineers, project managers, business analysts and management to these programs.  INCOSE, the International Council of Systems Engineering also provides links to training and certification as a Systems Engineering Professional, again primarily for professionals in the workforce.

The Systems Engineering discipline primarily came from Industry and Government, especially Defense and Aviation, and is now grown to be applied to develop and manage the complex systems in Energy, Transportation, Health Care and other industries.  Both the Systems Engineering Professional Education and the University Education in Engineering Systems are complementary and synergistic.

Universities that provide Systems education provide Undergraduate programs, Graduate programs, or Professional Certificate programs, or a combination of all three.  Undergraduates with Systems education are able to become useful as a Systems Engineer right away. Charles Wasson makes a great argument for comprehensive systems engineering training at the undergraduate level to all engineers in this paper. At the same time, it can also be good to become well educated in one of the disciplines, like Mechanical or Software Engineering, and then take a Graduate degree in Systems, often with some work experience in between.  Many engineers in the workforce find that their background in one of the disciplines is not enough for being a leader in developing complex multi-disciplinary systems, so they return to get either a Graduate degree or take Professional courses in Systems.  The average age of students in MIT’s System Design and Management Program is 34, reflecting more mature students.


The Canadian University Programs in Engineering Systems or Systems Engineering are not as well developed as the leading Universities in this field.  UBC and SFU have undergraduate programs in Integrated Engineering and Systems Engineering respectively, and both are a good first step towards multi-disciplined engineering, but neither school has a Graduate Level or Professional Programs, and the current curriculum does not generally include the Systems Engineering fundamentals or have the same level of fusion with social sciences or management science as in other leading Universities.  SFU’s program is more of a Mechatronics program than what Systems Engineering is typically known for.  The University of Waterloo has perhaps one of the best Systems program in Canada, with their System Design Engineering program, which is both Undergraduate and Graduate level, though it has a flavour of more “subsystems engineering” than “macro systems engineering”.  Concordia also seems to have a good Systems program, graduate level, and focused on Information Systems.   U of T has a graduate certificates in global engineering or multidisciplinary engineering final project programs, but the bulk of instruction is still in the traditional disciplines, and there isn’t the same level of Systems education or Research as the leading Universities.  Overall for Canadian Universities there is a good start but there is much room for improvement.

Note there is a large diversity in the naming of these “Systems” programs, as to a certain degree, each University likes to brand their program as unique.

In my home region of Vancouver, there are many local companies that heavily use systems engineering in their development.  They include MDA, Westport, Ballard, and many small tech start-ups.  They have all had to teach the Systems Engineering discipline by bringing in external resources, as BC graduates don’t come with much Systems educational background.  For future BC developments, such as a new LNG plant, or improving our Health Care System, Systems Engineering is of great benefit.  In the rest of Canada, we have world leading companies like Bombardier, GE Canada, SNC-Lavalin, Cisco, and Blackberry that all heavily use Systems Engineering.

Canada is shifting from a more Resource-centric economy to more of a Knowledge-based economy.  One of the most effective pillars to do that is to ensure Canada has a very strong systems-centric engineering education at our academic institutions to complement the traditional disciplines.  Canadian Universities must improve their Systems education and Research.  There are great examples by the leading Universities that Canadian Universities can incorporate.

While these changes are difficult to do, because it requires organizational changes, there can be tenure and political issues, there are fixed budgets and five year plans already in place, and it can be hard to fuse departments between different faculties of Engineering, Management, and Social Science – the incredible benefits of improved Systems education to Canada, the Provinces, Industry, Students, and the Universities is well worth the investment.