• Written by Robert Bordley, Professor and Program Director, Systems Engineering and Design, University of Michigan

Dealing with the social and economic upheaval from the coronavirus pandemic will require the skills and talents of many types of professions – medical personnel, public health experts, parents, students, educators, legislators, enforcement authorities and many others. Until now, though, the U.S. has struggled to mount[1] a coordinated national response[2] to effectively stamp out COVID-19, even as other countries in Europe and East Asia have shown that the disease can be controlled[3].

In the past, the United States has successfully mobilized to address deeply complex challenges and I believe one of those – sending astronauts to the Moon – can be instructive today, even though a pandemic is a very different challenge.

Twelve years after the famed Project Apollo to land men on the Moon in 1969, General Motors hired former NASA Administrator Robert Frosch[4] to bring space-age technology to car manufacturing. He commissioned a small task force to incorporate Apollo’s engineering process into the design of vehicles. I began my systems engineering career in this task force and now work on integrating the statistical and management sciences into future moonshots[5].

Today, this systems engineering approach is central to the automotive “moonshot” to create driverless vehicles. And I believe the Apollo method could be applied to some of the pandemic’s thornier issues. Let’s look at the challenge of educating U.S. children as an example.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines[6] recommend reopening school buildings in the fall – with various safety precautions. But unlike other nations which have dictated specific protocols, the U.S. has delegated those decisions to individual districts. This is where the Apollo engineering system could help: by determining the appropriate division of responsibility based on expertise.

Deciding how and whether to reopen schools is complex -- here's how rocket scientists would develop a plan One way to organize school plans is to break into subcommittees to address specific issues, such as in-school safety. izusek/Getty Images[7]

Systems engineering includes six key steps:

Define requirements. The first step in planning to return students to classrooms or teach online is identifying stakeholders – including parents, students, teachers, neighbors and employers – to hear their concerns. Then, planners must itemize the key benefits that school provides in addition to education, such as: child care for working parents, meals for hungry children, discipline and socialization.

Create the relevant committees and assign responsibilities. Coordinating a wide range of experts is critical to safely educating children in person. To do so, a small task force must outline an overarching approach breaking down the overall effort into its component parts, such as transportation to schools, school ventilation and sanitation, curriculum development and serving meals. The task force then creates a committee for each “sub-problem,” such as an on-site education committee, testing and tracing, a remote education committee and a medical committee. To ensure that each individual group contributes to a successful overall solution, the task force develops committee requirements to guide and evaluate their efforts, while giving each committee as much flexibility as possible in leveraging its expertise.

Create the relevant subcommittees and assign responsibilities. Each committee outlines its approach to its sub-problem and creates subcommittees to provide more detail on different elements of the approach. For example, the on-site education committee might break off into smaller groups that address safety enforcement, classroom design and building ventilation. Each subcommittee is given “subcommittee requirements” to guide its efforts.

If necessary, work can be further specialized within sub-subcommitees: The Space Shuttle program involved more than a dozen levels of responsibility.

Deciding how and whether to reopen schools is complex -- here's how rocket scientists would develop a plan Children in a pre-school class wear masks and sit at desks spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines during summer school sessions in Monterey Park, California on July 9, 2020. Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images[8]

Work the plan. As each subcommittee tackles its assignment, coordinators orchestrate their efforts to avert missteps and enhance synergies between other groups. For example, if the safety subcommittee concludes that some children will not keep masks on in class[9], the coordinator might create more aggressive requirements for those working on classroom design and ventilation. When a subcommittee finishes its assignment, the solution is evaluated against that subcommittee’s requirements.

Integrate proposals from every committee. Once all issues facing on-site education have been addressed, individual solutions – on masks, building ventilation, classroom design, testing and more – are evaluated as a whole before being approved as the committee’s integrated, overall solution. The committee solution is then evaluated against the committee’s requirements. Each of the committee solutions are then evaluated as a whole before becoming the task force’s plan. The task force’s plan is then evaluated against its requirements. Stakeholder representatives then evaluate whether the plan ensures that schools can, indeed, open safely.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter[10].]

Support rollout Initially, these protocols are implemented at a small scale and then ramped up slowly as all are trained to understand their responsibilities: teachers, administrators and other staff, parents, students, employers, police, doctors, families and government authorities.

Constant maintenance and nimble adaptation will be needed to deal with unforeseen events like schools running out of masks or from students[11] and school staff getting sick. Once an effective vaccine is available and the pandemic dissipates, the plan must detail how some protocols can be safely dismantled.

This exercise in systems engineering is not meant to be an actual school opening plan but instead a perspective on how people can organize to address complex problems that involve many groups of people.

The U.S. has successfully completed moonshots before. We can do it again.


  1. ^ struggled to mount (
  2. ^ a coordinated national response (
  3. ^ disease can be controlled (
  4. ^ Robert Frosch (
  5. ^ integrating the statistical and management sciences into future moonshots (
  6. ^ guidelines (
  7. ^ izusek/Getty Images (
  8. ^ Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images (
  9. ^ will not keep masks on in class (
  10. ^ Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter (
  11. ^ students (

Authors: Robert Bordley, Professor and Program Director, Systems Engineering and Design, University of Michigan

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

Musik Radio Promotions - Opening the World For Indie Artists Music

Industry without inspiration never leaves a lasting impact. Hard work and discipline often produce a reliable product but, without the spark of love behind its creation, posterity will take a dim view of its ultimate worth. Ten years ago, worldwi...

News Company - avatar News Company

The Musical Journey of Lamont Dozier, Jr.

I was quite young when music entered my life. Music always had a role in my household, being that my mother, Elizabeth Ann Dozier, was a musician and the choir director for the church that I and my sisters grew up in. My mother also taught clas...

Lamont Dozier, Jr. - avatar Lamont Dozier, Jr.

Actor Thorn Castillo is the “New Face of Schick”

Last year, just after my acting and modeling career had started taking off, I heard some interesting advice from Robert Downey Jr. during an interview on Sam Jones’ series “Off Camera.” Talking about his own early experiences, he said something l...

Thorn Castillo - avatar Thorn Castillo

SHERYL LEE RALPH 2020 Creative and Political Projects

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our day to day lives – but Tony nominated and Spirit Award winning actress/activist Sheryl Lee Ralph is booked and busy with her ongoing slate of dynamic TV, literary, political and entrepreneurial projects, revealin...

News Company - avatar News Company


Greye’s explosive new single “So Far So Good” is the perfect intro to the band’s new, harder-edged direction, an amped up way to experience all the dynamic elements Greye is known for.This explosive new single “So Far So Good” is the perfect intr...

News Company - avatar News Company


GLORIA LORING The Best of Me   There is something beautiful about artists whose insight into the human condition allows them to create works that, even beyond their original intention, emotionally and intuitively meet the moment and help us ...

News Company - avatar News Company

Metropolitan Business News


In 2019, just as his multi-faceted career was taking off, Thorn Castillo heard Robert Downey Jr. offer a sage bit of advice during an interview on photographer/director Sam Jones’ acclaimed multi-...

News Company - avatar News Company

New Research Highlights Opportunities for Sports Betting

Revenue Stream for Sports’ Post-COVID-19 Recovery Strategies New Rochelle, NY, June 1, 2020— Twenty-four states have now legalized sports betting, with more states considering legalization la...

Len Stein - avatar Len Stein

How to make overseas transfers easier?

Mainstream banks can charge as much as $20 just to process a basic international money transfer. Fortunately, today people are not doomed to handling personal finances only through mainstream gl...

News Company - avatar News Company

The flourishing international market of fragrance and perfume

There is something special and unique about the art of fragrance. This is a big world and there are quite literally a lot of smells around at any given time. In fact, as one of the five human senses i...

News Company - avatar News Company

Impact of good marketing on sales

Sales and marketing are brothers as they go hand and in hand. The job of both of these departments is to generate revenue so that an organization can make money. A company that does not generate rev...

News Company - avatar News Company

7 effective tips for increasing sales in retail

It seems that retailers have drawn a difficult lot in the 21st century: competition from online retail is growing steadily. After all, Internet retailers can sell your products at significantly lowe...

News Company - avatar News Company

Writers Wanted

News Company Media Core

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion