General Engineering major changes name to Systems Engineering and Design

Mike Helenthal
8/29/2016 2:36:17 PM

In Fall 2016, The Bachelor's of Science in General Engineering changed its name to the Bachelor's of Science in Systems Engineering and Design.

The decision was not made lightly. Years were spent gathering information, talking to many students, alumni, and employers, and taking up the matter with university administration, before the decision was finalized.

The underlying question has been, as it always is at ISE: “How will this help our students succeed?”

With that question in mind, Heidi Craddock, assistant director of undergraduate programs, says the department found that the General Engineering name was outdated and didn’t properly communicate the aspirations of students or the department.

Military Aeronautics Headquarters (Transportation Building), ca. 1912-1918.
Military Aeronautics Headquarters (Transportation Building), ca. 1912-1918.

Craddock says, “The General Engineering degree as we know it has been a great curriculum since it was created in 1953, and the program has deep roots in design from the time it was originally called General Engineering Drawing (established in 1921). General Engineering was also one of the original five programs on the Engineering campus to be accredited, beginning in 1936. Because of this, many people will ask why we would change the name of such a strong program with such a deep history.

“This coupling of the words ‘systems’ and ‘design’ in the name very much coincides with how engineering as a discipline is evolving,” says ISE Department Head and Donald Biggar Willett Professor Rakesh Nagi.

“It’s part of the expanding genealogy tree of Engineering.”

While protractors and blueprints were long ago replaced with computers and data analytics, the academically rigorous palette approach of the old General Engineering program won’t be changing anytime soon.

Under the Systems Engineering and Design banner, students will still learn the breadth of engineering science, they will still choose a specialized focus, and they’ll still be asked to apply that specialized information to dream about, create, and maintain advanced systems around the world.

Nagi calls the ISE approach “Engineering-plus.”

“Here, we think you need engineering, plus something else,” he says.

And the Systems Engineering and Design degree will continue the tradition of the General Engineering degree to be the vehicle for getting that “something else.”

The tried and true approach has led students to practically invent their own specialties – “to reach a little bit out of their normal reach,” as Nagi puts it – with graduates going on to such non-traditional engineering jobs as patent law, medicine, policy, and consulting.

“The curriculum base is the same – it hasn’t changed with the name,” Nagi says. “In systems engineering, the interaction between component parts is more formalized and focused upon. But what we do that’s different than other programs is establish pedagogies to show how everything relates to one another. We create a more holistic engineer.”

Nagi says department leaders discussed the name change with students, alumni, faculty, and industry leaders, then shepherded the proposal through the requisite campus academic committees to give everyone a chance to weigh in on it.

Craddock says students were looking for better ways to share a description of their broad-based knowledge with potential employers; some employment applications don’t even list General Engineering as an option anymore.

The name change will alleviate those issues for students.

Craddock explains, “General Engineering students are second to none in their education, work ethic, and experience. The nature of the students ha[s] not changed but times have changed and there are not very many programs named ‘General Engineering’ in the United States. While our Midwest industry partners still love our General Engineers, many companies beyond the Midwest borders do not know or understand the General Engineering degree simply because of the name.”

For these reasons, Craddock believes, the name change will permit better recognition of our outstanding students and afford them greater opportunities upon graduation.

Saachi Shah, a 2013 General Engineering graduate and member of the ISE alumni board, says she experienced the terminology disconnect as soon as she started applying for post-graduate employment.

She had seven offers upon graduation, but she spent a lot of time explaining her credentials to interviewers.

“I always used to be asked 'So, you don't have a specialized major?'” she recalls. “It was the most frustrating question I got. It led me to using 'Systems Engineering' on my résumé anyway, and it seems to have eliminated a lot of the confusion.”

R.S. Sreenivas, associate professor and head of ISE’s Graduate Studies program, says he thinks industry will take notice of the change and that ISE students will benefit from it.

 “The name has been a misnomer for a while now,” he says. “Even though it wasn’t the case, it’s always been interpreted as the underside of engineering, or a place to figure out where you’re going to go. This new name we believe will move the needle for students, and help them better quantify their expertise.”

He says the systems-first focus of the program means that students can apply their knowledge to just about any discipline – and they are taught principles that make them capable of posing ideas that may never have been considered before.

That’s something that any industry should want.

“They will go on to eventually have fantastic careers that are not traditionally considered as being inside the engineering radar screen,” Sreenivas says. “You are talking about someone who has the ability to think about putting all of these things together, of getting all of these widgets and doodads all working together.”

Jim Newman, a member of the ISE Alumni Board, says he was surprised when he first heard the department was changing its name.

“When we were made aware of the proposal, I became a bit nostalgic, saddened, and honestly, slightly defensive that the General Engineering program I chose, and value so much, was no longer being offered,” he says.

But then he learned about the student-centric rationale for the change, and that the core mission of the department wasn’t changing, but evolving.

After those assurances, he jumped on board with both feet.

“Undoubtedly, the change will position our great students to compete more effectively in the job market,” he says. “Isn’t that what truly matters?”

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ISE class of 2021, August 2016.
ISE class of 2021, August 2016.

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