Research on Building Education & Workforce Capacity in Systems Engineering
Human Capital Development
Research on Building Education & Workforce Capacity in Systems Engineering, (referred to as the SE Capstone Project), is conducting research to understand the methods through which systems engineering learning and career interest may be increased among undergraduate and graduate engineering students. This research is being conducted in the context of 14 “capstone” courses, in most cases as an integrative culminating, project-based course involving teams of students working together on the development of a product or prototype that addresses a real Department of Defense need. Implemented as pilot courses in eight civilian and six military universities, these 14 institutions are piloting methods, materials, and approaches to create new courses or enhance existing courses to embed, infuse, and augment systems engineering knowledge, as defined by the SPRDE-SE/PSE Competency Model, among undergraduate and graduate students. This report is a snapshot of progress and preliminary findings as reported in SE Capstone partners’ interim reports as of January 2011 which, in most cases, represents the midpoint of their course implementation.
Each university chose one or more problem areas based on existing faculty expertise and interest. Two civilian universities and one service academy chose to work in more than one of the DoD problem areas. More than half the projects (8) addressed DoD Problem Area 1, with Problem Area 4 as the next most commonly addressed topic, with the remaining two problem areas divided among the other institutions.
The key features that differentiated the organizational structure of the programs at the different Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) were the following:
- Faculty: The collaboration of two or multiple faculty members on course design and implementation. At 11 institutions, faculty came from at least three separate engineering disciplines, literally embodying the multi-disciplinarity of a systems engineering team. SE faculty were the largest percentage of participating faculty.
- Courses: The integration of the SE component into existing courses or the creation of entirely new courses.
- Course sequencing: The implementation of a course sequence that included an introductory course followed by a capstone experience or a capstone experience only.
- Student population: The involvement of either undergraduates and graduate students as learners* or only one of these.
- Mentors: The presence and level of active and meaningful involvement of DoD and industry mentors in a variety of student learning experiences.
There was a diverse array of methods, approaches and structures for the implementation of the courses. All but one institution integrated the RT-19 effort into existing SE courses. Thirteen of the 14 projects implemented the RT-19 pilot over two semesters. One institution offered a single-semester capstone project course, and one conducted a one-semester course in the fall and spring semesters. Student teams ranged from four to seven members. Nine of the institutions had only undergraduates as students, two had exclusively graduate students and three had both. Class sizes varied widely across institutions, ranging from a low of 3 or 4 students to 48. The average class size was 20.
The most prevalent engineering discipline (among students) across all institutions was Systems Engineering, followed by Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Computer Science/Software Engineering, and Industrial Engineering. Overall, the student population was over three-quarters male, with a small female population and a small percentage of students selecting not to report their gender. Students’ reported ethnicities included 64 percent white; 11 percent Asian; 7 percent African American; 5 percent Hispanic/Latino; and Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander at <1 percent and unreported,11 percent. Approximately 40 percent of the students who returned surveys reported no experience with Systems Engineering and another 20 percent reported that they did not know if they had any such experience—for a total of 60 percent of the total population. Of those students who did report previous systems engineering experience (multiple responses were allowed), 25 percent had taken coursework, 12.5 percent had had full-time employment in systems engineering, 7 percent had a coop or internship experience, and 1 percent had systems engineering work experience during the academic year.
Over half (52 percent) of all students reported a level of high interest in becoming a systems engineer, 18 percent reported moderate interest, and 1 percent reported little interest. Forty-two percent of the students reported that they might want to work for the government as a systems engineer.
Projects with DoD mentors reported very different levels of interaction. Over 46 percent of PIs reported that their DoD mentors were “very involved;” another 46 percent reported not having a mentor or not yet working with their mentor. DoD mentors facilitated student learning in a variety of ways; however, their roles differed instructionally depending on whether they also served as clients, as they did for 50 percent of participating institutions.
Industry mentors took on roles similar to the roles played by DoD mentors—as clients, consultants, or SMEs. PIs at two institutions that had both industry and DoD mentors reported that having both types of mentor benefited the students’ projects.
It is premature at this stage of course implementation to correlate student outcomes with the structure or content of the courses or with any particular strategies or course materials. However, the PIs’ interim reports provide some insights into preliminary lessons learned about course objectives and implementation. These observations fall into several categories:
- Challenges teaching the broad topic of systems engineering to non-SE majors under time constraints.
- Challenges with equivalent grading policies in multi-disciplinary teams, particularly where SE was an overlay to an existing multi-disciplinary team structure.
- Challenges with content-domain-specific problem areas and with finding meaningful ways for other disciplinary majors to contribute.
- Motivating external mentors to bring authentic professional experiences to the learning experience.
- SE content modules provide opportunities to bring non-SE majors to a common understanding. These have been implemented with varying frequency, durations, and numbers across several projects.
- Efforts to provide specific disciplinary expertise (internal and external) to infuse sufficient content knowledge into student teams such that students are able to focus on the bigger SE competencies.
It is also not clear at this stage the extent to which RT-19 funding has created entirely new materials or simply (and in some cases, substantially) enhanced existing courses. This is an area for further investigation.
Recommendations that emerge from a review of the implementing institutions’ interim reports suggest that:
- More planning time is needed to effectively plan and coordinate course materials and assessments; make optimal use of external resources such as DoD and industry mentors, as well as facilities visits; and to secure buy-in and define roles and responsibilities of interdisciplinary faculty participants.
- In order to effectively recruit students, the specific DoD problem area should be defined and disseminated to students at least at the time students register for their next cycle of courses (the term prior to the course implementation).
- Better connections, more clearly defined roles, and stronger commitment by DoD and industry mentors would enhance students’ experiences in cases where the participation of external mentors has been lacking. Consideration of a nominal 5 financial commitment by external clients may increase the investment/commitment by these mentors.
- A list of required and recommended faculty events and student programs should be made available to PIs to encourage maximum participation and allocation of sufficient financial resources.
This report contains a snapshot of the richness of the 14 SE Capstone courses that
have been and are being implemented at 14 institutions. At this point in project
implementation, it is not possible to provide an analysis of student learning outcomes.
The final report will aim to connect the course content and organization, including
materials created by faculty as well as the contributions of external mentors, with
impacts on student learning of SE content, their interest in SE careers, and their interest
in DoD problem areas and careers.