Research on Building Education and Workforce Capacity in Systems Engineering
Human Capital Development
Report Number: SERC-2012-TR-019-1
Publication Date: 2012-01-31
Project: Capstone Research to Grow SE Workforce Capacity
Dr. Mark Ardis
Research on Building Workforce Capacity in Systems Engineering (referred to as RT-19A, SE capstone project, or capstone course throughout) is conducting research to measure the success of student projects in systems engineering at ten main institutions of higher education (IHEs) and five partner schools. Since September 2011, students at the IHEs have engaged in the dual task of designing physical prototypes in multidisciplinary teams and investigating systems engineering competencies, methods, concepts and DoD problem areas. Fifty-two reported faculty are supporting student learning of select systems engineering competencies derived from the SPRDE-SE/PSE model through lectures, take-home and in-class reading assignments on engineering concepts, teamwork exercises, formative and summative assessments, guest presentations, and hands-on prototype development. Mentorships, an integral part of the yearlong research effort, have provided students with ongoing technical expertise, project feedback, and opportunities to interact with industry and DoD engineering professionals as well as external faculty.
Distinguishing features of this year’s effort include:
- Introduction of a new problem area, Assistive Technologies for Wounded Warriors.
- Systems Engineering content knowledge delivered through a combination of lecture and hands-on work in DoD problem areas beginning in the fall semester.
- Faculty selection of specific systems engineering competencies as course foci.
- Increased utilization of digital tools for distance communication between students’ virtual teams and with mentors.
- Addition of partner universities who are developing various forms of collaboration with their partners, including remote development of prototype subsystems.
Expeditionary Assistance Kits and Immersive Training Technologies were the two problem areas chosen by the greatest number of participating schools (6 schools for both areas), followed by low-cost, low-power computing as the second most frequently chosen problem area. Two universities researched the new problem area, added this year (Assistive Technologies for Wounded Warriors), and partnered on the development of a prototype to relieve phantom limb pain. PIs at schools that returned surveys reported student interest (38.5%) and faculty research interest (30.8%) as the top two reasons for selecting a particular problem area.
Nine institutions that had participated in RT-19 returned this year for RT-19A. Faculty at five institutions reported making minor changes to their courses. Faculty at two schools reported making major changes, including emphasizing general systems engineering concepts and models and lessening instruction on software engineering principles. The remaining six PIs designed entirely new capstone courses.
DoD problem areas and student prototypes
Faculty reported that the following student prototypes (organized by problem area in the list below) were in development:
Problem Area 1 – Low-cost, low-power computing
- Portable UVA to be launched by soldier to reconnoiter hostile environment by air
- Small-scale, low-voltage battery management and charging system
- Small sailing robots that can operate autonomously in navigation and communicate with each other for coordinated operations
- Small-scale model of the power plant and vehicle providing proof of concept
Problem Area 2 – Expeditionary Assistance Kits
- Prepositioned Expeditionary Assistance Kit
- Fully functional, independently powered (e.g., renewable power source) water purification system capable of supporting at least 80 people from multiple water sources
- Power sub-system in partnership with Naval Academy
- Shipboard wastewater treatment system development for Coast Guard cutters (includes development of membrane-bioreactor for treating shipboard gray water and pollutant removal)
- Natural gas engine conversion
Problem Area 3 – Expeditionary Housing
- Green housing
Problem Area 4 – Immersive Training Environments
- Cockpit/Crew Station of the Future (2035) used as a simulator to train pilots
- Immersive training vests with position reporting and vibrators
- Interactive, immersive training environment with human gesture tracking and facial emotion capture
- Distributed systems assurance processes and methods
Problem Area 5 –Assistive technologies for wounded warriors
- Immersive technology to alleviate phantom limb pain
According to the PI interim survey, 52 faculty members in nine areas of engineering, including mechanical, systems, electrical, computer science, software, civil, aeronautical, ocean and industrial engineering, contributed their time and expertise to RT-19A effort. At thirteen institutions, PIs reported that all faculty assumed multiple and often overlapping roles in RT19A--as curriculum developers, subject matter experts, lecturers, team advisors, liaisons to SERC and to DoD/industry mentors, and as mentors to students on an individual, disciplinary-specific basis.
Many aspects of capstone course design and implementation were shared by PIs. At nine schools, instruction in the Fall semester was delivered as a combination of lecture and designbased work on the DoD problem area. Faculty at four schools reported working solely on the DoD problem. All institutions implemented presentations and design reviews as formative and summative assessments--one of the promising practices of effective systems engineering teaching and learning reported by RT-19 sponsors. At 7 schools, capstone courses were required of undergraduate students. Faculty reported that face-to-face student conversation was the most successful recruitment strategy, followed by discussion with auxiliary departmental faculty or advisors who then informed students of the capstone course offering.
A total of 285 students answered the RT-19A baseline survey, slightly less than the 294 students who responded last year. The gender of the student population was similar to last year, with over three-quarters reporting as male, less than 20% reporting as female, and the rest selecting not to report gender. Two-thirds of the students were white, with the remainder Asian (14%); Black or African American (9%); Hispanic/Latino (4%), Hawaiian, Alaska Native or American Indian (< 3%); and 5% not reporting ethnicity. Students represented a wide range of disciplines, with systems engineering and mechanical engineering as the two majors with the greatest number of students. Fifty-five percent of the students who responded were undergraduates, 38% were graduate students, and 7% were postgraduates. All institutions except for two (Auburn and Naval Postgraduate School) reported that their classes were comprised of undergraduate students. The population at NPS was entirely graduate students, while only one school, Auburn, reported that a mixed student population of undergraduate and graduate students worked together on the capstone project.
Despite the high percentage of students who reported that they were systems engineering majors, 59% of the students who responded to the survey had no systems engineering experience. Of the students who did have experience, 49% had had coursework in systems engineering and 20% had had full-time employment. Thirty percent of students reported high interest in systems engineering careers, 20% reported moderate interest, and 8% reported no interest. Seventeen percent of students reported high interest in working for the government as a systems engineer.
Sixty-nine percent of the student teams were inter/multidisciplinary, and team sizes ranged from 2 to 14 with an average of 6 students per single team. Four PIs reported that students in their classrooms had no experience working in multidisciplinary teams, while the other 9 PIs reported varying interdisciplinary team experience.
All schools reported working with a DoD mentor, an industry mentor, an external faculty mentor, or several of these. The interaction of this year’s mentors with students, as reported by the surveyed PIs, aligned with two of RT-19’s promising practices, “Regular, direct involvement of mentors with student project teams-- e.g., significant meetings twice monthly with ‘on-call’ consultations between meetings” and “Structured design reviews with DoD and industry mentors serving as reviewers.” DoD mentors at seven schools communicated regularly with the students, providing them with initial requirements definition, ongoing technical advice and feedback during design reviews. Students at the Coast Guard Academy also visited the worksite of their DoD mentor.
A major difference between this year and last was the inclusion of many more industry mentors. At eleven schools, students collaborated with professional engineers at the following companies, government agencies, and research centers: American Electric Vehicles, Aqua Sun, BAE Systems, The Boeing Company, Buro Happold Engineers, Frontier Technology, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, Northrup-Grumman, and Potomac Training Corporation, NASA, Missile Defense Agency, US Army Aviation and Missile Command, and Auburn University Huntsville Research Center.
Industry mentors worked with students at all IHEs surveyed except two partner schools as technical advisors, clients, subject matter experts and reviewers. Students and mentors communicated at least several times a semester by email, telephone, teleconference, videoconference and exchanged work through online file-sharing websites. When time and opportunity allowed, industry mentors paid visits to 7 schools. At two schools, University of Virginia and Sweet Briar College, students visited industry worksites.
Systems engineering career interest
Another suggestion for this year was that PIs incorporate explicit discussion of systems engineering careers into the capstone courses. Nine out of 13 PIs who responded to the survey stated that they had included or would include discussion of careers in the context of informal classroom discussion (39%) or through interaction with a guest speaker or mentor (30%).
Challenges and successes
PIs reported that students encountered many of the same challenges and successes at the midpoint of their yearlong capstone. The areas of greatest challenge included teaching students complex systems engineering concepts and content knowledge in a compressed timeframe and facilitating interdisciplinary and distance communication between team members. The areas with the greatest success were communication with clients and mentors, student interest in “real-life problems,” and hands-on practice with systems engineering content knowledge, particularly in the competencies of Communication and Requirements definition.
In addition, the impact of RT-19 and RT-19A as reported by faculty extended beyond the classroom. For example, students at two universities who had participated in RT-19 were helpful in recruiting students to RT-19A.
Four PIs reported that they planned to disseminate results of RT-19A through student
conferences and competitions. Three PIs reported that they had submitted papers to academic