Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session


This course introduces the principles and methods of Systems Engineering. Lectures follow the "V"-model of Systems Engineering, including needs identification, requirements formulation, concept generation and selection, trade studies, preliminary and detailed design, component and subsystem test and integration as well as functional testing and delivery and operations. Additional concepts such as tradeoffs between performance, cost and system operability will be discussed. Systems Engineering standards and selected journal articles serve as a basis for readings, and individual homework assignments will apply the concepts from class. Both aeronautical and astronautical applications are covered. The class serves as preparation for the systems field exam in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Students wishing to only participate in the journal club should register under 16.980 Advanced Special Project for 3 units.


The prerequisite for the course is permission of the instructor.


Complex aerospace systems like aircraft, satellites and launch vehicles consist of thousands of different parts that all work together to achieve a number of 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. We use the term "stakeholders" to identify people and organizations that have a stake in the system. Systems Engineering is a discipline whose aim it is to coordinate all design and management activities during aerospace 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.i 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 class, this introduction will 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. Thus, this class is merely 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 airline crashesii and launch vehicle failures would not exist. Indeed, as aerospace systems performance has increased dramatically they have also been getting 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. Due to various uncertainties it has become desirable to design systems in a way that they are easy to maintain and evolve over their entire lifecycle. We will explore these frontier topics in systems engineering through reading and discussion of a variety of journal and conference papers.

Learning Objectives

The students in this class will be able to:

  • Enumerate and describe the most important Systems Engineering standards and best practicesiii
  • Summarize the key steps in the systems engineering process starting with stakeholder analysis and ending with transitioning systems to operations
  • Appreciate the important role of humans as beneficiaries, designers, operators and maintainers of aerospace systems
  • Articulate the limitations of the way that current systems engineering is practiced in terms of dealing with complexity, lifecycle uncertainty and other factors
  • Apply some of the fundamental methods and tools of systems engineering to some basic "toy" examples as a stepping stone to more complex and real world projects

Additionally, the class will provide preparation for the field exam in the area of systems for those students wishing to qualify for the doctoral program in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Class Format and Structure

The class consists of four pedagogical elements that are interwoven to maximize the use of both individual and class time. These elements are lectures, assignments, readings and a (voluntary) design competition.

Lectures: The lectures will last 60 minutes and will present some of the key ideas and concepts for particular steps of the systems engineering process. The lectures will roughly follow the "V" model of systems engineering (see figure below).

Diagram of the course units and how they relate to one another.

The structure of the 16.842 class follows the "V" model. (Image by MIT OpenCourseWare.)

Assignments: The assignments will be based in part on past oral and written exam questions in the doctoral qualifying exams since 1999. These questions will be partly quantitative and partly qualitative and should require on the order of 2 hours to solve. The assignments will reinforce lecture concepts and include solving systems questions in the area of vehicle design and performance. They will be scheduled such that they are more or less synchronized with the class materials.

Readings: The readings in this class or are of two types. First we will assign weekly readings from the NASA Systems Engineering Handbookiv to supplement the class materials. You can expect to read about 40 pages per week in this fashion. Second we will have one or two journal or conference papers per week as assigned reading (journal club). A team of students will prepare a short presentation of each weekly paper (about 20 minutes) and will lead a peer discussion about its contents, merits and potential demerits.

Design Competition: Towards the end of the semester we will announce the rules of a friendly design competition using a robotics context. This will be most likely use the LEGO® Mindstorms (NXT 2.0) kit and ask students to design and build a machine that will participate in a tournament style competition at the end of the semester after the end of scheduled classes. The outcome of the design competition will not contribute to the class grade and participation is voluntary.

There will be two online quizzes in the class, one at the mid-point of the semester and the other one at the end. These quizzes are open book.


For those enrolled in the 6-unit course 16.842, the grading will occur on the letter scale A-F following standard MIT grading policy. The grade will be composed as follows:

Assignments 60%
Mid-term and end-of-term quizzes 30%
Active class participation 10%

The best 3 scores out of 4 total homework assignments will be used for the Assignments grade. Thus, students may still achieve a grade of A even if they miss one assignment.

Students registering only for the 16.980 Advanced Individual Study (journal club) will be graded strictly on pass/fail. To obtain a passing grade, students must present one paper and participate in at least 70% of the discussion sessions.


i NASA. NASA Systems Engineering Handbook. NASA/SP-2007-6105, Rev 1. Washington, DC: NASA, December 2007.

Haskins, Cecilia, ed. INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook: A Guide for System Lifecycle Processes and Activities. INCOSE-TP-2003-002-03, version 3. San Diego, CA: International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), June 2006.

Software and Systems Engineering Standards Committee of the IEEE Computer Society. International Standard: Systems and software engineering — System life cycle processes, Ingénierie des systèmes et du logiciel — Processus du cycle de vie du système. ISO/IEC 15288:2008(E), IEEE Std 15288-2008, 2nd ed. Piscataway, NJ: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), February 2008. (This resource may not render correctly in a screen reader.PDF)

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

iii Our main "textbook" for the class will be the NASA Systems Engineering Handbook, NASA/TP-2007-6105, Rev 1. All students taking this class will have read the textbook in its entirety by the end of the term.

iv NASA. NASA Systems Engineering Handbook. NASA/SP-2007-6105, Rev 1. Washington, DC: NASA, December 2007.