Systems engineering, one of the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees, is a little different from traditional fields of engineering. Engineers who focus on systems need an array of skills from interdisciplinary fields of study. As you might expect, programming is one part of the study of systems engineering. However, there’s a lot more to the field of systems engineering than coding and software development.
Understanding Systems Engineering
What exactly is systems engineering? This field is broader than disciplines like mechanical, chemical or electrical engineering in that it isn’t limited to a single type of system (mechanical system, chemical system or electrical circuit system). At the same time, it has a narrower focus because systems engineers concentrate on systems, or multiple components that interact to accomplish a function. Systems engineers apply the principles of mathematics and the sciences to design, develop, build, implement, analyze, refine and manage any type of system.
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A system can refer to computer software applications engineered with the use of computer programming languages, but it doesn’t have to be. Systems can be electrical or electronic, consisting of circuits and other components. Some systems are biological, existing within the body and doing the work that keeps an organism living and functioning. Types of systems range from robots to manufacturing processes, from communication networks to business supply chains.
The simplest way to understand systems engineering is that, instead of focusing on one type of technology, systems engineers focus on how a whole system works and employ various types of technology to design, build, evaluate and solve problems in that system.
More Than Programming
Studying, designing, analyzing and intervening in each of these types of systems requires some amount of computational skill. However, the extent of your use of programming skills in this career path depends heavily on the type of system with which you work. Some systems engineers perform programming tasks on a daily basis. Others only use their programming skills once in a while, with their primary job functions falling into other areas outside of programming.
For your job in systems engineering, you might need to know only enough of a statistical programming language – like R or Python – to use statistical analysis software. Other roles in systems engineering might require extensive programming skills and knowledge of a variety of languages – such as Java, C++ and Visual Basic – to write the code that makes systems work or adjust existing code to optimize the performance of a system.
Your levels of interest and skill in programming will likely play a role in how you decide to use your systems engineering degree. If you enjoy the programming aspect of the field and do it well, you’re likely to gravitate toward opportunities that involve more programming and require stronger programming skills. Systems engineers who don’t particularly like programming and whose coding skills are adequate but not particularly strong will likely find that the careers that require more extensive programming skills aren’t of particular interest to them.
Because some level of programming skill is expected of systems engineers in all areas, this skill is embedded into the curriculum of this degree program. A bachelor’s degree program in systems engineering will usually require students to take at least a couple of courses in computing and programming. An introductory programming course will cover basic programming topics and high-level topics in defining problems and developing solutions using programming languages.
Software engineers often study object-oriented programming. This model of computer programming emphasizes using algorithms and programming skills to use and manipulate objects like data fields, as opposed to developing code based on mathematical functions or formal rules of logic. Students may take classes in object-oriented programming generally or in the more specific topic of object-oriented modeling and design.
Even in computer-heavy fields of employment like information technology (IT), systems engineers write code but also perform tasks like maintaining technical infrastructure and analyzing and solving problems with an IT system, according to Robert Half.
A Systems Engineering Curriculum
Since there’s so much more to systems engineering than just programming, the curriculum is also a lot more diverse than you might expect. You will need a strong background in mathematics and the natural sciences, including coursework in algebra, geometry, calculus, differential equations, statistics and physics. Besides any introductory engineering coursework you might take, you should expect to take plenty of classes in the specialized field of systems engineering.
You will learn about the foundations of systems engineering, the process of systems design, and quantitative methods used in designing and managing systems. A sequence of courses in dynamical systems will introduce you to the modeling and control of systems that change over time. Other topics of study in a systems engineering program may include systems engineering management, decision and risk analysis, applied systems engineering, operations research, human factors engineering and laboratory work in the modeling and simulation of different kinds of systems. Hands-on work, in the form of a senior project, capstone course or internship, may be required to graduate.
You may also have the chance to focus on different types of systems, such as bioengineering systems, computer network systems, aviation systems, control systems, software-intensive systems or systems in mechanical, environmental or financial engineering.